Burden of disease analysis measures the combined impact of dying prematurely, as well as living with disease. More than merely counting deaths or disease incidence and prevalence, burden of disease analysis takes into account age at death and severity of disease for all diseases, conditions and injuries, in a consistent and comparable way. This report presents detailed findings on the burden due to cancer in Australia using results from the Australian Burden of Disease Study 2011.

Cancer burden greatest of all disease groups but improving

Cancer was the greatest cause of health burden in Australia in 2011, accounting for around one-fifth (19%) of the total disease burden. Cancer was ranked ahead of cardiovascular diseases (15%) despite having fewer deaths and lower disease prevalence. This is mainly the result of people dying earlier from cancer than cardiovascular diseases. Most (94%) of the burden from cancer was due to dying prematurely, with only a small proportion due to living with a cancer diagnosis.

Almost half (48%) of the total cancer burden in 2011 is from 5 cancers—lung, bowel, breast, prostate and pancreatic cancers—and almost one-quarter (22%) of the total cancer burden can be attributed to tobacco use.

The cancer burden has improved since 2003, with a 10% decline in age-standardised rates of overall burden. Improvements are evident across most cancer types (except liver and thyroid cancer), with the bulk of the improvement due to a decline in the fatal burden of lung, breast and bowel cancers through a shift towards dying at older ages.

These improvements are generally expected to continue to 2020 with expected falling mortality rates; however, both the fatal and non-fatal burden of lung cancer in females and liver cancer in both sexes is expected to increase with increasing incidence and mortality.

Higher cancer burden in Indigenous Australians

Indigenous Australians experienced 1.7 times the cancer burden of non-Indigenous Australians. In particular, Indigenous males experience 2.3 times the lung cancer burden of non-Indigenous males, and Indigenous females 2.6 times the lung cancer burden of non-Indigenous females.

The improvements observed in cancer burden nationally were not reflected in the Indigenous population, with a small increase in the age-standardised rates of overall cancer burden between 2003 and 2011.

Burden increases with increasing remoteness and decreasing socioeconomic position

The burden of lung, bowel, prostate and pancreatic cancers increased with increasing remoteness. The rate of cancer burden increased with decreasing socioeconomic position, with people in the lowest socioeconomic group experiencing 1.4 times the cancer burden of people in the highest group. In particular, the rate of lung cancer burden in the lowest group is almost twice the rate in the highest group.