More Western Australians are being diagnosed with cancer than ever before. Every day, 36 West Australians hear the words “you have cancer”.
There are multiple reasons for the increase in cancer diagnoses. Firstly, there are more people in Western Australia than ever before, as the population has risen to over 2.8 million people.
Secondly, we are now living longer (on average), which means we have an aging population. Many cancers are age-related, with the likelihood of developing cancer and being diagnosed increasing as we grow older.
Finally, we have made serious advancements in screening and are more actively looking for cancer, through early detection. As we know that people are more likely to survive cancer if it’s found early.
There are two strategies that promote early detection of cancer:
- Screening: identifying unrecognised cancer or pre-cancer in a population of those presenting as healthy people (without symptoms). In Australia, we have three national screening programs:
- BreastScreen Australia
- National Cervical Screening Program (NCSP)
- National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP)
- Symptom awareness and early diagnosis: recognising symptoms of cancer at the earliest possible opportunity and being diagnosed and treated without delay. This means being aware of changes in your body and seeking medical advice without delay when you recognise something that isn’t normal for you.
The following image helps to distinguish the difference between screening and symptom awareness/early diagnosis.
Image courtesy of World Health Organisation.
Both of these early detection strategies can help a cancer be diagnosed and treated at a potentially curable stage, improving the chance of survival and quality of life.
Important things to remember:
- If you have symptoms go to your GP, clinic nurse or Aboriginal health worker without delay. Don’t wait to participate in your next screening test as it could potentially delay diagnosis and treatment, resulting in a worse outcome.
- Even if you participate in screening regularly, you should still look out for symptoms in between screening tests. Cancers can sometimes be missed by screening tests (as they are not 100% accurate) or can develop after a screening test.
- Even if you feel fit and healthy, you should still look out for symptoms.
National screening programs
Cancer screening is an important way to detect cancer early. If detected early, treatment is more likely to be successful. Cancer screening tests are done on people with no symptoms and aim to identify those who are at a higher risk of cancer, as they may need to then undergo further testing. This is also the case for those with early stage cancer, who have not yet developed any symptoms.
There are currently three free cancer screening programs operating in Australia:
BreastScreen WA has been running since 1989, and invites women aged 50-74 years for a free mammogram every second year. Over 75% of breast cancers occur in women over 50 years of age, and screening mammograms are able to detect cancers as small as a grain of rice before they can be felt by a patient or doctor. Find out more about BreastScreen WA.
The National Cervical Screening Program offers a free Cervical Screening Test, which looks for human papillomavirus (HPV) which is the cause of almost all cervical cancers. Women and people with a cervix aged 25-74 will be invited every five years to take part in the program. Even those who have had the HPV vaccine will still need regular cervical screening. Find out more about the National Cervical Screening Program.
The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program invites eligible Australians starting at age 50 and continuing to age 74 to screen for bowel cancer using a free, simple test at home. This test is called a faecal occult blood test (FOBT) and a testing kit is sent to the home address of eligible Australians every two years.
Find out more about the National Bowel Screening Program. Order a free replacement bowel screening kit here.
On the horizon
There is currently no routine screening test for lung cancer in Australia.
Lung cancer is a complex disease and there are a number of factors and issues requiring further consideration before lung cancer screening could be feasible in Australia.
On 1 August 2019, the Minister for Health, invited Cancer Australia to conduct an enquiry into the prospects, process and delivery of a National Lung Cancer Screening Program in Australia. The report was submitted in November 2020.
In 2022, the scoping work for this program continues. You can keep up to date with the progress here.
Symptom awareness and early diagnosis
It is very important that people are aware of their own bodies and what is normal for them. If you notice a symptom that is unusual for you, seeking medical advice early is always the best step.
In regional Western Australia, we have a community symptom awareness campaign called Find Cancer Early. It educates about the five most common cancer symptoms and encourages people to visit their GP, clinic nurse or Aboriginal health worker straight away if they have any symptoms.
Find Cancer Early promotes the important message that the earlier cancer is found, the greater the chance of successful treatment.
To learn more about symptom awareness and finding cancer early visit the Find Cancer Early website.
To order copies of the Find Cancer Early resources, please complete the Find Cancer Early resources order form.