Louis Roller takes a look at the cancer landscape in Australia

Cancer, also known as a malignant tumour or malignant neoplasm, is a group of diseases involving abnormal cell growth with the potential to invade or spread to other parts of the body.

Not all tumours are cancerous; benign tumours do not spread to other parts of the body. Possible signs and symptoms include: a new lump, abnormal bleeding, a prolonged cough, unexplained weight loss, and a change in bowel movements, among others.

While these symptoms may indicate cancer they may also occur due to other issues.

  • 1 in 3 Australian men and 1 in 4 Australian women will be diagnosed with cancer before the age of 75.
  • Most people in Australia will touched by cancer at some stage in their lives, either personally or through family and friends. Annually more than 123,000 new cases of cancer are diagnosed in Australia. And as our population ages, cancer is becoming more prevalent.
  • Most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia is prostate cancer, followed by colorectal cancer, breast cancer, melanoma of the skin and lung These cancers are estimated to account for about 60% of all cancers diagnosed.
  • The most common cancers diagnosed by life stage are:
    • leukaemia for people aged 0–24
    • breast cancer for women and melanoma for men aged 25–49
    • prostate cancer for men and breast cancer for women aged 50–64
    • colorectal cancer for people aged 65 and over.
  • The highest incidence rates of all cancers combined are in Tasmania and Queensland and the lowest incidence rates are in the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.
  • Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in Australia with an estimated 45,700 people dying each year.
  • The types of cancer most commonly causing death are lung, prostate and colorectal cancers in males and lung, breast and colorectal in women.
  • The survival rate for many types of cancer has increased by more than 20 per cent in the past three decades due to treatment improvements and new interventions brought about by research. Unfortunately this increase is not consistent across all cancers.
  • For males, 5-year survival was highest for those diagnosed with testicular, lip and prostate For females, 5-year survival rate was highest for those diagnosed with thyroid, lip cancer and melanoma of the skin.
  • Pancreatic cancer (males 6% and females 6%) and mesothelioma (males 5% and females 8%) accounted for the lowest survival in both males and females.

Smoking: Despite smoking rates falling to below 17 per cent – remains the biggest lifestyle risk for developing cancer. Smoking accounts for 90 per cent of all lung cancers, which now kill more women than breast cancer.

Exercise can lower women’s risk of pre-menopausal breast cancer. The risk of breast cancer in a woman who goes through menopause at age 55 is 40 per cent higher than in a woman who goes through menopause at age 45 because they’re exposed to 10 more years of period-related hormones.

Eating red meat every day heightens the risk of bowel cancer by five to 10%, while there is a 10 to 20% increased risk associated with being overweight or obese.

Alcohol intake can also be an indicator of whether or not a person will develop cancer.  High alcohol intake, especially if one is also a smoker, is a risk factor for head and neck cancer and cancer of the oesophagus.

Australia has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world. The slip slop slap campaign is well known and pharmacists can remind sunbathers to reapply sunscreen. Red-haired, fair-skinned people burn easily and those with lots of moles need to be especially careful. People who have had several blistering sunburns as a child are at 15% greater risk for each sunburn.

Pregnancy permanently changes breast tissue, making it less likely to become cancerous, so the later this change occurs in a woman’s life, the more time the breast cells have had to become abnormal and cancerous. However, women lower their risk of developing these cancers with each child they have, and breastfeeding for a total of a year or more lowers the risk of breast and ovarian cancer because hormonal changes and changes to breast tissue protect the cells.

Women who have regular Pap tests are less likely to develop cervical cancer and there is now a vaccine against the human papillomavirus.

For all cancers, the risk increases with age. Screening programs for breast, cervical and bowel and prostate cancers have improved early detection and treatment and those who get tested regularly are less likely to develop the disease.

Five to 10% of common cancers are caused by a genetic predisposition. But even if one is genetically predisposed, it still requires environmental exposure to bring out that predisposition.  People with a predisposition should be screened earlier than others.

There is now talk of a blood test to predict cancers that may be available in a few years’ time.

Adhering to a healthy lifestyle will reduce the risks of getting cancer, not eliminate them.


Associate Professor Louis Roller, from the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences Monash University, was the 2014 recipient of the PSA Lifetime Achievement Award.