From 1982 to today: How far we’ve come against cancer

Tuesday 6 July, 2021

Associate Professor Prudence Francis

Associate Professor Prudence Francis

A lot has changed in how cancer affects people in Australia over the last 40 years.

The good news? According to the federal government’s most recent data, conditions are getting better, with survival rates increasing and more people beating a diagnosis each year.

But not everything has changed. The latest data, released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), shows that the five most common cancers in Australia today are the same as they were in 1982.

The AIHW’s data projections show that the five most diagnosed cancers in 2021 will be breast, prostate, melanoma, colorectal and lung cancer.

However, though the occurrence is increasing, people like you are making sure the outcomes are very different, with more people surviving every year.

Thanks to your support, each year Cancer Council Victoria can fund a wide range of research across all cancer types, including rare and low-survival cancers.

In 2021, many of these research projects are focused on two of the most diagnosed cancers in Australia: breast cancer and colorectal (or bowel) cancer.

Helping personalise breast cancer treatment

While treatment for breast cancer has come a long way, it’s now the most common cancer diagnosis in Australia, with approximately 68 diagnoses per 100,000 people in Australia – much higher than the 44 per 100,000 in 1982. Just over 20,000 people in Australia are projected to be diagnosed with breast cancer this year.

But there is significantly more hope for those diagnosed than there was in the ‘80s, with mortality rates almost halving from 17 per 100,000 to just 9.5.

Working with Professor Sherene Loi and Professor Sarah-Jane Dawson, A/Professor Prudence Francis is helping further improve these outcomes by learning how to enable more personalised breast cancer treatment.

A/Prof Francis and her team are seeking to understand the response to pre-operative treatment in women with hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. Their aim is to learn which patients get the greatest benefit from drug treatment before surgery and how to predict this response.

“We want to understand how tumour genes respond to breast cancer treatment,” A/Prof Francis said. “We will identify gene markers present in breast cancer that predict if the cancer will respond to chemotherapy with and without endocrine therapy, prior to surgery.

“This research aims to develop new strategies to individualise breast cancer treatment in order to maximise the benefit of the therapy. Our goal is to personalise treatment for women in the future.”

This work, which supporters like you are helping fund, could not only ensure women with breast cancer have an easier experience with their treatments, but also help continue the wonderful increase in survival we have seen since 1982.

Understanding bowel cancer in families

Colorectal cancer, also known as bowel cancer, has also been a mainstay of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in Australia through the past four decades. Unlike breast cancer, its incidence rate has decreased since 1982, when nearly 7,000 people were diagnosed with the disease. At a rate of 58 people per 100,000 being diagnosed, it was the most common cancer in Australia that year.

That’s dropped to fewer than 50 people per 100,000 being diagnosed now, with projections suggesting around 15,540 will receive a bowel cancer diagnosis in 2021. But despite this decreased rate, it remains one of Australia’s deadliest cancers.

Cancer Council supporters are helping change this by supporting the work of Professor Ingrid Winship and her team as they seek to understand the underlying genetic causes of familial bowel cancer.

Professor Ingrid Winship

“This is a significant global health problem,” Prof Winship said. “Bowel cancer is a leading cause of cancer-related death in Australia; it is also one of the most preventable, [especially] if we know who to target for screening.”

Over a third of bowel cancers are thought to be caused by inherited risk factors, but the underlying genetic cause of up to 95% of familial bowel cancers is currently unknown.

Prof Winship and her team will aim to identify unique tumour profiles to differentiate inherited bowel cancers from non-inherited ones. They will do this by studying the genomic make-up of tumours to find their ‘mutational signature’ – which can identify a tumour’s active processes and their likely causes.

“This study will lead to a better understanding of familial bowel cancer and identify associated prevention strategies such as targeted screening, chemo-prevention and lifestyle changes,” Prof Winship said.

The ultimate aim is to ensure the continuing decrease in the rate of bowel cancer diagnoses does not stop now, to save more lives into the future.

The work of Prof Winship, A/Prof Francis, and the more than 40 other research projects people like you are currently helping to fund are all working towards this goal.

Work like this is part of an enormous and ongoing effort which has seen the number of lives lost to cancer, as a proportion of the population, fall significantly in Australia since 1982. Back then, more than 200 people per 100,000 died of cancer; now, it’s less than 150, according to the AIHW data.

That’s an extraordinary shift, and it’s only getting better. Thank you for being an important part of this amazing effort.

Explore the AIHW data