Cancer is a large range of diseases in which some of the body’s cells become defective, begin to multiply out of control, can invade and damage the area around them, and can also spread to other parts of the body to cause further damage.

There are more than 1 million people alive in Australia who have previously been diagnosed with cancer. During 1987–1991, 5 in 10 (51%) people survived for at least 5 years after their cancer diagnosis; more recent figures are closer to 7 in 10 (69%) people surviving at least 5 years.

This page presents projected cancer incidence and mortality estimates for 2020.

How common is cancer?

In 2020, it is estimated that:

  • about 145,500 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in Australia, an average of just under 400 people every day; more than half (53%) of these cases will be diagnosed in males
  • the most commonly diagnosed cancers in males will be prostate cancer (16,700 cases), melanoma of the skin (9,500 cases), colorectal cancer (8,300 cases) and lung cancer (7,200 cases)
  • the most commonly diagnosed cancers in females will be breast cancer (19,800 cases), colorectal cancer (7,200 cases), melanoma of the skin (6,700 cases) and lung cancer (6,000 cases).

The age-standardised incidence rate of all cancers combined rose from 384 cases per 100,000 people in 1982 to a peak of 507 cases per 100,000 in 2008, before decreasing to 490 per 100,000 in 2016. Age-standardised rates are estimated to continue to fall to 480 cases per 100,000 people in 2020 (Figure 1).

The increasing trend to 2008 was largely due to a rise in the number of diagnosed prostate cancers in males and breast cancer in females. This trend may have been the result of increased prostate-specific antigen testing, the introduction of national cancer screening programs, and improvements in technologies and techniques used to identify and diagnose cancer.
 

The figure shows that the number of cancer cases between 1982 and 2020 has been steadily increasing from 47,468 cases in 1982 to an estimated 145,483 cases in 2020. Age-standardised incidence rates were 383.5 cases per 100,000 persons in 1982 and peaked at 507.3 cases per 100,000 persons in 2008 and are estimated to decrease to 480.4 cases per 100,000 persons in 2020.

Stage at diagnosis

Cancer stage at diagnosis refers to the extent or spread of cancer at the time of diagnosis. The AIHW, Cancer Australia and state and territory cancer registries worked together to produce national population-level data on cancer stage at diagnosis for the 5 most commonly diagnosed cancers (breast, prostate, colorectal and lung cancers and melanoma of the skin) diagnosed in 2011. These cancers were assigned a ‘stage’ from I to IV. The higher the number, the further the cancer had spread at the time of diagnosis. The national statistics on cancer by stage at diagnosis from the above-mentioned project remain the most recent available.

Collection and analysis of data on cancer stage at diagnosis enhances the understanding of the variation in cancer stage at the time of diagnosis and how it affects survival.

In 2011:

  • most cancers were diagnosed at stage I or II (66%), with melanoma of the skin having the highest percentage diagnosed at stage I (78%)
  • 12% of cases diagnosed with 1 of the 5 most commonly diagnosed cancers presented with a stage IV cancer
  • stage IV cancer accounted for 42% of lung cancers diagnosed, which was the highest percentage of the 5 cancers.

Survival

Information on survival from cancer indicates cancer prognosis and the effectiveness of treatment available. Relative survival refers to the probability of being alive for a given amount of time after diagnosis compared to the general population (see Glossary). A 5-year relative survival figure of 100% means that the cancer has no impact on people’s chance of still being alive 5 years after diagnosis, whereas a figure of 50% means that the cancer has halved that chance.

During 2012–2016 in Australia:

  • individuals diagnosed with cancer had, on average, a lower (69%) chance of surviving for at least 5 years after diagnosis compared with their counterparts in the general population (referred to as ‘5-year relative survival’)
  • among people who had already survived 5 years past their cancer diagnosis, the chance of surviving at least another 5 years was 92%
  • survival rates vary considerably between cancer types—cancers such as testicular, thyroid and prostate cancer have 5-year survival rates over 95% while cancers such as pancreatic, liver and lung cancers and mesothelioma have 5-year survival rates of less than 20%
  • 5-year survival rates increased from 5 in 10 (51%) in 1987–1991 to nearly 7 in 10 (69%) in 2012–2016.

Survival by stage of diagnosis

The stage of cancer at diagnosis and subsequent treatment outcomes are important determinants of cancer survival. Five-year relative survival rates were highest for cancers diagnosed at earlier stages.

For the 5 cancers where stage at diagnosis data was collected in 2011, 5-year relative survival for:

  • breast cancer in females at Stage I was 100%; at Stage IV it was 32%
  • colorectal cancer at Stage I was 99%; at Stage IV it was 13%
  • lung cancer at Stage I was 68%; at Stage IV it was 3.2%
  • melanoma of the skin at Stage I was 99%; at Stage IV it was 26%
  • prostate cancer in males at Stage 1 was 100%; at Stage IV it was 36%.

Impact

Deaths

It is estimated that, in 2020, around 48,100 people will die from cancer, an average of around 130 deaths every day. Males are estimated to account for 56% of these deaths.

In 2020, it is estimated the age-standardised mortality rate from cancer will be 150 deaths per 100,000 people; in 1982 the mortality rate was 209 deaths per 100,000 people (Figure 2). See Causes of death.
 

The figure shows that the number of deaths from cancer between 1982 and 2020 increased from 24,915 deaths in 1982 to an estimated 48,099 deaths in 2020. Age-standardised mortality rates were 209 deaths per 100,000 people in 1982 and were relatively stable until 1994 when mortality rates began to decrease; mortality rates are estimated to continue to fall to 150 deaths per 100,000 persons in 2020.

 

Burden of disease

Burden of disease analysis measures the impact of disease and injury in a population by estimating the ‘disability-adjusted life years’ (DALY) experienced by the population. This measure counts the combined years of healthy life lost due to living with disease and injury (non-fatal burden), and dying prematurely (fatal burden).

In 2015, cancer contributed to 18% of the total burden and was the leading disease group causing burden. Dying from cancer accounted for 34% of the fatal burden in Australia (AIHW 2019a). See Burden of disease.

Expenditure

In 2015–16, total recurrent expenditure on health goods and services was $160.3 billion, of which an estimated 73% ($117 billion) was able to be attributed to specific disease groups. Cancer and other neoplasms (tumours) was the fifth most expensive disease group and accounted for 7.2% of the $117 billion disease-specific expenditure (AIHW 2019b). See Health expenditure.

Treatment and management

The treatment and management of cancer may involve surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and palliative care. See Cancer screening and treatment.

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on cancer, see:

Visit Cancer for more on this topic.

References

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2019a. Australian Burden of Disease Study: impact and causes of illness and death in Australia 2015—summary report. Australian Burden of Disease Study series no. 18. Cat. no. BOD 21. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2019b. Disease expenditure in Australia. Cat. no. HWE 76. Canberra: AIHW.