Poor take-up of free cancer tests robbing Australian lives

6 January 2013

Australians are shunning the cancer tests that could save their lives with around half those eligible refusing the chance to be screened for bowel, breast and cervical cancer.

The latest data shows just 40 per cent of the three million Australians aged over 50 who were sent a free bowel cancer test in the mail completed it in the first five years of the government program.

This is despite researchers estimating 20-30 lives per week could be saved by a higher take-up rate.

Similarly only 55 per cent of women are undergoing breast screens and just 57 per cent are having tests for cervical cancer, the Department of Health and Ageing told a Senate estimates committee.

Although this is broadly in line with official targets Cancer Council chief Professor Ian Olver said the rates were disappointing and we should be aiming for 70 per cent participation.

''Early detection is important if you want to improve the cure rate for cancer,'' he said.
''If you are not participating you're robbing yourself of a chance of prevention.''

Discomfort in having to collect their own samples - the first time people have been expected to do so - has been blamed for the poor take-up rate of the free bowel cancer screening.

Prof Olver said Australians needed to get over this psychological difficulty because ''we reckon 20-30 lives per week could be saved by a fully implemented bowel screening program''.

''We estimate a decrease in deaths of one third among bowel cancer screening participants, compared to those who don't participate,'' he said.

Men were proving less likely to complete a test (37 per cent) than women (43 per cent).
When it comes to breast screening it appears women are procrastinating.

A recent Breast Screen Victoria study of those who had never or only rarely had a screening found 78 per cent thought it was worthwhile but simply kept putting it off.

A further 18 per cent felt their bodies would tell them if they had cancer while a small percentage thought getting cancer was a matter of fate.

"People often find a way to keep their mind at rest about the real risk," BSV chief Vicki Pridmore said.

"Our message was that one in every nine women will get breast cancer, that 78 per cent of all breast cancers occur in women aged over 50 and even women without a family history are at risk. It's a free service and it only takes ten minutes.''

Women who are screened for breast cancer have experienced a 25-35 per cent decrease in mortality compared to those who are not screened, while the death rate for cervical cancer has halved since the introduction of the population cancer screening programmes.

The groups least likely to participate in cancer screening programs overall were the socio-economically disadvantaged, indigenous Australians and culturally diverse populations.

Cancer Screening Rates in Australia:

  • Bowel cancer 40 per cent participate
  • Breast screen 55 per cent participate
  • Cervical cancer 57 per cent participate

Bowel cancer screening tests will be sent to those aged 50,55, 60, 65 in 2013

Breast screening is free for women aged 50-69 and is recommended every two years

Cervical cancer screening is for women between the ages of 18 and 69 years and is recommended every two years.

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