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March 23, 2015

Breast cancer survival rates where Australia stands on the global scale

Breast cancer remains the leading cause of cancer-related death for Australian women. Each year, over 2,700 women die from the disease – that’s 7 women per day. At the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF), we hear these statistics every day. It’s what motivates us to continue our work towards our goal of zero deaths from breast cancer by 2030.

But, how do breast cancer survival rates in Australia compare to other nations worldwide?

Until recently, reliable and comparable worldwide data for cancer survival have been scarce. A study, published late last year in the prestigious journal Lancet, has taken on the challenge of collating and analysing global statistics.

Researchers from Cancer Research UK set out to collect survival data for 10 common cancer types, including breast cancer, for the period from 1995 to 2009. Cancer registries in 67 countries, including Australia, participated in the study – providing survival data on over 25 million cancer patients. Researchers then compared the number of people still alive 5 years after their diagnosis for each cancer type – this is called the 5-year survival rate.

The findings showed that 5-year breast cancer survival rates stood at 85% or higher in 34 countries. Survival rates in Australia are high on this global scale, sitting in eighth position behind European countries and the United States. However, 5-year breast cancer survival rates remained significantly lower for developing countries, including Malaysia (68%), India (60%) and Mongolia (57%).

While variation in breast cancer survival remains between developed and developing nations, the findings show that breast cancer survival has been increasing globally. These trends are likely due to earlier diagnosis, a reduction in death from surgery and more effective treatments for breast cancer.

In Australia, earlier diagnosis of breast cancer is helped by our access to breast screening. Women between the ages of 50–74 are eligible for free mammographic screening every 2 years through state-based BreastScreen services.

Recently, there has been some talk in the news about overdiagnosis of breast cancer through mammographic screening. Overdiagnosis refers to the small number of breast cancers that are detected through screening that would otherwise not progress to the point of detection within a woman’s lifetime.

Those speaking out on the issue of overdiagnosis claim that current mammographic screening in Australia leads to women being treated for breast cancer unnecessarily – and thus being exposed to the side effects of breast cancer treatment unnecessarily.

Cancer Australia and Cancer Institute NSW believe this message is misleading and confusing for Australian women. At NBCF, we support the stance of Cancer Australia and Cancer Institute NSW, and wanted to take a moment to communicate the facts.
• Breast screening is able to detect breast cancers before they can be felt. Generally, the earlier a breast cancer is found, the greater a woman’s chance of survival.
• The majority of breast cancers found through breast screening are progressive and would eventually become symptomatic if left untreated.
• Identifying those cancers which will progress, and those that will not, is not currently possible. This is an area in which research is ongoing.
• All women between 50 and 74 years of age should access free mammographic screening every 2 years through BreastScreen.
• Women of all ages should be breast aware, and see a doctor if they notice any changes to their breasts.

NBCF has a proud history of supporting research to improve methods of early diagnosis as we strive to improve breast cancer survival rates. Your generous support has helped us to fund projects to improve the accuracy of radiologists who read mammograms, and identify women at high risk of breast cancer who may benefit for increased screening.

In 2015, we are pleased to be funding three new projects to improve early detection, including one project which seeks to investigate methods of improving mammographic screening through the incorporation of genetic and lifestyle factors.

Your generous support can help NBCF continue to fund vital research like this, to bring us closer to our goal of zero deaths from breast cancer by 2030. Donate to fund research today!