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New study: 61,000 cancer deaths avoided in 20 years

Thursday 9 May, 2013

About 61,000 Australian lives have been saved by improvements in cancer prevention, screening and treatment over the past 20 years, according to new Cancer Council research released today.

The Cancer Council study* compared recent** cancer deaths with the late 1980s, showing the largest reductions in deaths across all types of cancer were for lung, bowel and breast cancers, and an overall reduction of about 30 per cent in cancer deaths.

Annual lung cancer deaths have fallen by 2,154 compared with what we could have expected if late-1980s trends had continued. There were also 1,797 less bowel cancer deaths, and 773 less breast cancer deaths.

Craig Sinclair, Director of the Prevention unit at Cancer Council Victoria said: "This report clearly highlights that the combined advances in cancer prevention, research and treatment are working and saving lives, and we expect about 8,000 deaths to be avoided each year if current advances in cancer are maintained.

"The significant fall in expected lung cancer deaths reflects a big drop in the number of male smokers.

"But, unfortunately, we have seen a small increase in the number of women who die from lung cancer and this can largely be attributed to the increase in women smoking up until the 1970s. Further reductions in smoking rates will see more lives saved from lung cancer.

"Reductions in expected bowel and breast cancer deaths are likely due to significant improvements in early detection and treatment," Mr Sinclair added.

"National screening programs for breast, cervical and bowel cancer have made a huge impact on survival rates. Applying this success to a full roll out of the bowel screening program could further reduce bowel cancer deaths."

However, the research revealed that some cancers have seen little improvements over the last 20 years, prompting a call for more research and investment into these cancers and continued focus on improving cancers to sustain the advances we have already seen.

Cancer types with the smallest improvements over 20 years include cancer of the brain (148 fewer deaths), pancreatic (69 fewer deaths), and oesophagus (64 fewer deaths).

"Brain, pancreatic and oesophagus cancers are amongst the most globally underfunded and that is why Cancer Council has boosted our research investment into all three of these cancer types.

"Yet we can do better in all cancer types, because prevention and detection programs have not reached their potential. With more research we can also improve treatment outcomes."

While lung, bowel and breast cancers had the biggest reductions in number of actual deaths avoided, they remained in the top four causes of cancer death, because they are prevalent and increase in incidence as we age. Other factors that can increase risk include obesity, a known bowel and breast cancer risk factor.

"Applying what we know now, investing more into research and translating good research into effective practice will save more Australians in the future. This is particularly important for lung cancer which remains the biggest annual cancer killer," Mr Sinclair added.

Cancer Council Victoria has a strong ongoing commitment to fund high quality research that is made possible by the generosity of the people of Victoria through events such as Australia's Biggest Morning Tea which has been an ongoing success for the last 20 years. 

*Cancer Council NSW compared the observed cancer mortality profile of Australians aged 74 or less in 2007 to expected deaths using 1987 rates. The late eighties were a defining point in time when Australia started to invest heavily in the fight against cancer. Some key dates and facts are included below.

** The research project used the latest national data available at the time of analysis. The annual number of deaths from 1986 to 2008 for each major cancer type were obtained from the ABS.
This is the first stage of this study. The full report will include a breakdown of most cancer types and will be finalised and ready for publication later in the year.

Background: 20 years in the Australian fight against cancer


  • Smoke-free work places introduced in Australia
  • AIHW report 41.3% five year cancer survival rate in males (1982-1986)
  • AIHW report 53.2% five year cancer survival rate in females (1982-1986)


  • Smoking aboard Australian domestic aircraft was banned in 1987
  • Adult smoking rates were 28% in females 34 per cent in males
  • Price per pack of cigarettes was $2.13
  • There were 18 radiotherapy departments across Australia


  • Tamoxifen became widely available for treating women with early breast cancer in combination with chemotherapy and radiation therapy following pooled results from around the world, including Australian trials


  • Breast cancer screening was introduced
  • Cigarette advertising was banned in locally produced newspapers and magazines


  • Cervical cancer screening was implemented


  • Billboards, outdoor and illuminated signs advertising cigarettes were banned


  • Hepatitis B universal infant immunisation program introduced


  • Bowel screening pilot studies began


  • World Health Organisation report confirmed that poor diet and lack of physical activity are second only to tobacco as theoretically preventable causes of cancer


  • AIHW report 58.4% five year cancer survival rate in males (1998-2004)
  • AHIW report 64.1% five year cancer survival rate in females (1998-2004)


  • Australian Government introduced the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program as a one-off test for people turning 55 and 65 as part of a plan to phase in wider population coverage.

2007 onwards

  • 61,190 fewer cancer deaths in 2007 than if the 1987 death rate had remained constant
  • Human papillomavirus vaccination introduced in 2007
  • Adult smoking rates: 16 per cent in males, 14 per cent in females (2010)
  • 53 radiotherapy departments across Australia, including the first centre opened in the Northern Territory in 2010
  • Price per pack of 20 cigarettes 2011: at least $15.52