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Breast cancer survival surges but fewer women undergoing free screening test

October 6th, 2015

More Australian women are surviving breast cancer as death rates from the disease continue to plummet, new figures show.

However, only one in two women are undergoing free screening tests, which is vital in detecting the cancers at an early stage when they are smaller, providing better treatment options.

An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report shows the breast cancer death rate has fallen from 68 per 100,000 women in the target age range of 50-69 years in 1991, when BreastScreen Australia started, to 42 per 100,000 women in 2012.

The death rate has shown a largely downward trend over the past 24 years, apart from a slight jump in 2002 when it reached 58 per 100,000 women. This is compared to 52 per 100,000 women in 2000. The rate has fallen every year since then.

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer diagnosed in Australian women, and the second-most common cause of cancer related deaths among women. Over all ages, there were 2,795 deaths from breast cancer among Australian women in 2012.

More than 1.4 million women aged 50-69 years had a screening mammogram through BreastScreen Australia in 2012-2014. However, this represents just 55 per cent of women in the target age range, indicating more work to encourage women to have such tests needs to be done.

The national 55 per cent participation rate was consistent with recent years but noted participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women was significantly lower than for other women — 36 per cent in 2012-2013.

There was little variation in participation across socio-economic groups, with all groups ranging between around 52 per cent and 56 per cent.

In 2013, 12 per cent of women screening for the first time and 4 per cent of women attending subsequent screens were recalled for further investigation. These rates are slightly higher than for 2012.

More than half the cancers detected by BreastScreen Australia are small, which tend to be associated with more treatment options and improved survival.

Focus on Canberra

The rate of breast cancer survival in Canberra is higher than average for Australia, a report released by the ACT Government suggests.

The report examined changing treatment and outcomes for breast cancer patients over the past 15 years and found the probability a woman would be alive five years after being diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in the ACT was 91 per cent, compared with a five-year survival rate of 72 per cent in 1982 to 1987.

Nationally since 1994, the five-year survival rate for women with breast cancer has increased from 76 per cent to more than 89 per cent.

ACT Health attributed the good outcomes to improvements in the treatment and technology used in Canberra over the past 15 years, such as the introduction of oncoplastic breast surgery, more advanced radiation and chemotherapy and targeted therapies.