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Cancer screening saves lives, but thousands of Victorians are missing out

Thursday 8 October, 2020

New data shows concerning drop in number of Victorians participating in cancer screening during COVID-19 pandemic

Cancer Council Victoria is urging people to get up to date with bowel, breast and cervical cancer screening as data released today shows that fewer Victorians are participating in the three cancer screening programs in 2020 than in previous years.

The report, Cancer Screening and COVID-19 in Australia, released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, has shown that between January to June 2020 in Victoria there was a 35 per cent decline in mammograms, a 58 per cent decline in completed Cervical Screening Tests and a 15 per cent decline in returned bowel screening tests compared with previous years*. For numbers of cervical and breast screens, the Victorian decline is greater than the overall national decline.

Screening Program Manager at Cancer Council Victoria, Kate Broun said this data shows the concerning impact of COVID-19 on cancer screening programs, which could lead to declining rates of early diagnosis and more lives lost in the future.

“We understand COVID-19 has impacted Victorians in lots of different ways, especially living with our second wave of restrictions. This has meant some people have delayed healthcare during this time.”

“We are urging Victorians to make lifesaving cancer screening a priority. Screening can help to prevent cancer, such as for bowel and cervical cancer. It can also help to detect cancer in its early stages, which means more effective treatment.”

“If you have received an invitation to participate in any of the three cancer screening programs, please do not delay because of COVID-19. Screening providers are open, with measures in place to protect clients and staff. Participation in cancer screening helps save lives and reduces the load on the health care system into the future.”

CEO of Cancer Council Victoria, Todd Harper said this AIHW data aligns with the alarming drop in cancer pathology notifications reported by the Victorian Cancer Registry earlier this year.

“The impacts of COVID-19 on cancer screening and health checks in Victoria are clear. From April to July, we have already seen a 13 per cent decline in cancer pathology notifications compared to last year. For cervical and breast cancer screening programs, we have seen a greater drop in screening test numbers than the overall national decline.”

“We’re concerned this may mean cancers are detected later when there may be fewer treatment options available. Victoria’s unique COVID-19 experience means that we may face a slower road to recovery than other jurisdictions.”

“We encourage all Victorians to prioritise health checks and cancer screening. Attending medical appointments is one of the permitted reasons to leave home and travel outside the 5km boundary, so it’s possible to see your doctor with any health concerns. Health services have implemented infection control and health professionals are doing all they can to make sure it is safe to attend appointments, either in person or via telehealth.”

Mr Harper said this data and increasing evidence that people are avoiding health checks, prompted Cancer Council Victoria to launch state-wide bowel screening and Don’t Delay campaigns last month.

“Unfortunately, other medical issues don’t just stop because of COVID-19. Our campaigns are a timely reminder not to delay medical appointments and cancer screening. Finding cancer early could save your life.” Mr Harper said.

Screening aims to detect cancers early, either by detecting any early precancerous signs (to stop the cancer developing in the first place) or by detecting cancers when they are small (and treatment options and survival prospects are better). This leads to improved survival for people who participate in screening.

The latest cancer screening participation data from AIHW, shows that in 2017-2018, 45.2 per cent of eligible Victorians took part in bowel screening. In 2017-2018, 53.7 per cent of eligible Victorians took part in breast screening. In 2018, 53.8 per cent of eligible Victorians took part in cervical screening. For more information about the bowel screening campaign, visit: For more information about the Don’t Delay campaign, visit:


* bowel and cervical data compared 2020 with 2019, breast data compared 2020 with 2018.