Screening tests that may save your life

Cancer is a common disease and major health problem in Australia. We look at some common screening tests that can help detect cancer early and why it's important to be checked regularly. 

Cancer. It’s a word that strikes fear into the hearts of many.

It’s a common disease and a major health problem Australia. Currently, one in two men and one in three women will be diagnosed with a form of cancer before they are 85 years old.
Despite the five-year relative survival rate improving from 47 per cent between 1983-1987 to 67 per cent between 2008-2012, cancer is still a leading cause of death for Australians.

Common cancers affecting Australians

There are over 100 different types of cancer, but the following five types account for 60 per cent of all cases:
  • prostate cancer
  • breast cancer
  • bowel (colorectal) cancer
  • melanoma
  • lung cancer. 
According to Cancer Council Australia, one in three cases of cancer can be prevented. Significant risk factors for cancer are smoking, sun exposure, poor diet, lack of physical activity, and alcohol, which means all Australians can take action to reduce their risk. 
medical professional looking at scan body resized

Early detection is key

It’s certainly not possible to prevent all cancers. But some can be detected through screening programs, well before any symptoms are present. Early detection means early intervention and better outcomes.

Despite the availability of these tests, many people avoid them because they are ‘too busy’, or fearful of what the test may find.

However, taking time to be screened may just save your life.

Screening tests for common cancers

Breast cancer screening
BreastScreen Australia invites women aged 50-74 to have a free mammogram every two years. Women aged 40-49 and those over 74 years can also undergo free screening, however they are not sent invitation or reminder letters, and should talk to their doctor about whether they need to be screened. Contact BreastScreen Australia on 13 20 50 to make an appointment.
Cervical cancer screening
Since the National Cervical Screening Program was introduced in 1991, cervical cancer incidence and mortality rates have halved. Women aged 18-70 years who have ever been sexually active, are eligible for a free Pap test every two years, to detect early signs of cervical cancer. Speak to your GP about having the test.
Bowel screening
Bowel cancer causes the second highest number of cancer deaths in Australia, yet around 90 per cent of cases can be cured if detected early. Cancer Council Australia recommends all Australians over 50 years of age complete a faecal occult blood test (FOBT) every two years to detect early signs of bowel cancer.

Currently, the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program provides free FOBT kits and pathology to Australians aged 50, 55, 60, 64, 65, 70, 72 and 74.

Skin checks
There is currently no formal screening program for skin cancers in Australia. However, you should become familiar with your skin, and consult your doctor as soon as you notice any changes.  
Prostate screening
Early detection and treatment can improve prostate cancer survival. However, no test with sufficient accuracy to screen populations of men for early signs of prostate cancer exist. Most commonly, digital rectal examination and prostate specific antigen (PSA) blood tests are used to detect signs of cancer, but these tests are not always accurate. Men who have any urinary symptoms or who are concerned about prostate cancer should speak to their doctor.
Some cancers such as bowel and breast cancer can run in the family. If this is the case, it is wise to speak to your doctor.
Similarly, if you have any symptoms, are concerned about your risk of any type of cancer, don’t wait until you are eligible for free screening tests. Speak to your doctor. After all, early detection can mean a better outcome.
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