Bowel cancer treatment costs quadruple in 10 years

Tuesday 1 June, 2010

New research strengthens economic case for screening program

Research released today (1 June) shows annual bowel cancer treatment costs will have increased four-fold to $1 billion over 10 years by 2011, strengthening the economic case for expanding the Government's National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.

In the lead-up to Bowel Cancer Awareness Week (6 - 13 June), the study by researchers from the Royal Melbourne Hospital and BioGrid Australia, is the first to combine Australian screening data with treatment costs and survival rates, providing new evidence of the program's economic and social benefits.

"New high-cost drugs have seen the cost of treating advanced bowel cancers soar over the past decade by around $50,000 per case for advanced cancers," said Dr Sumitra Ananda, co-author of the study and an oncologist at Royal Melbourne Hospital.

"Yet if the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program was fully implemented, thousands of bowel cancers could be detected before they advance and require high-cost treatments."

Chair of Cancer Council Australia's National Bowel Cancer Screening Committee, Ms Alison Peipers, said the program was only available as a one-off test for people turning 50, 55 and 65, instead of to all Australians aged 50 and over every two years. Yet even though partially implemented, it is already picking up more than double the rate of early-stage cancers than those identified through symptoms.

"The program is one of the best public health investments available to government, yet almost two terms of parliamentary office have passed since both Labor and the Coalition campaigned on plans to phase it in back in 2004," Ms Peipers said.

"With a federal election approaching, the next Australian Government has an opportunity to deliver these benefits by committing to fully implement the program in the next parliamentary term."

More than 17,000 Australians have supported Cancer Council Australia's Get Behind Bowel Screening campaign ( over the past year. Ms Peipers said in light of the new research, Cancer Council Australia would redouble its call to the community to ask their local Members of Parliament and candidates to support the program's expansion.

New research: Escalating bowel cancer treatment costs in Australia

Key findings from a new study undertaken by a group of researchers from Royal Melbourne Hospital and BioGrid Australia*

  • Bowel cancer treatment costs has dramatically escalated over 10 years
  • Cost of treating bowel cancer in Australia likely to be around $1 billion in 2011
  • Reasons are increasing incidence, survival improvement (treating people longer) and new, effective but costly therapies
  • The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP) can potentially save both lives and costs.

Increasing treatment costs

  Current estimates

Previous estimates
(1999 costs)1  

Stage 1 




Stage 2




Stage 3




Stage 4




In the past 10 years treatment costs have increased for cancers at all stages. There have been huge increases in the cost of treating Stage 3 and 4 cancers, largely due to the increased chemotherapy options and the introduction of more effective but expensive drug regimes.

Bowel cancer stage of distribution

  NBCSP screened Unscreened
Stage 1



Stage 2



Stage 3



Stage 4



This table shows that the majority of patients diagnosed after participation in the NBCSP are found with cancers at Stage 1 or 2. In contrast, patients diagnosed outside the program, are more likely to be found with later stage disease. In fact, the NBCSP is finding twice the rate of Stage 1 cancers (the most treatable) than outside the program.

5-year survival rates

  New estimates Previous estimates2
Stage 1



Stage 2



Stage 3



Stage 4



New treatment options have led to improved survival rates. This is most evident in Stage 3 and 4 cancers.

*About BioGrid

BioGrid is a unique platform for life science research teams to access and share genetic and clinical research data across multiple organisations in an ethically approved and secure way, using the world wide web.

1 - O'Leary BA, Olynky JK, Neville AM, et al. Cost-effectiveness of colorectal cancer screening: Comparison of community-based flexible sigmoidoscopy with faecal occult blood testing and colonoscopy. J Gastroenterol Hepatol 2004; 19: 38-47.

2 - McLeish JA, Thursfield VJ, Giles GG. Survival from colorectal cancer in Victoria: 10-year follow up of the 1987 management survey. ANZJ Surg 2002; 72: 352-356.