Get checked

Early Detection

Cancers become more difficult to treat as they advance, particularly when they metastasise (spread) from their point of origin to other parts of the body. In many cases, cancers only become symptomatic (that is, show signs) after they have metastasised.

Early detection of cancer or precancerous conditions through screening populations who are asymptomatic (show no signs of disease) is one of the best public health measures for reducing cancer disease burden.

Early detection of skin cancer

Early detection generally gives the best chance of successfully treating cancer. Australian survival rates from melanoma are higher than in other countries because we are now more aware of the signs of skin cancer and are detecting them earlier.

More information is available in Cancer Council Australia’s position statement on skin cancer screening.  This provides advice for the general public about checking for skin cancer and makes recommendations to GPs in relation to high risk or concerned patients. It also discusses the lack of evidence to support skin checks in the workplace and public places.

 

To detect cancer early there are two things you can do

  • Have a check-up. See your doctor promptly if you notice any changes.
  • Attend a screening program if it’s recommended for you.

Check-ups - why should I have a check up and when?

  • Most cancers can be detected in the early stages, when they’re easier to treat if the symptoms are noticed.
  • It is important for people of all ages to have a check up from your GP when you notice anything unusual or have any concerns. Know what is normal for you so that you can quickly identify when there are changes.

Things to look out for:

Treatment can be more effective when cancer is found early. Keep an eye out for any unusual changes to your body, such as:

  • Lumps or sores that don’t heal (like an ulcer in your mouth).
  • Coughs or hoarseness that won’t go away or coughing up blood.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • A mole or skin spot that changes shape, size or colour or that bleeds.
  • Lumpiness or a thickened area in your breasts, any changes in the shape or colour of your breasts, unusual nipple discharge, a nipple that turns inwards (if it hasn’t always been that way) or any unusual pain.
  • A lump in the neck, armpit or anywhere else in the body.
  • Changes in toilet habits that last more than two weeks, blood in a bowel motion.
  • Unusual vaginal discharge or bleeding.

Screening - is it for me?

Screening is not recommended for everyone. It involves having a test for cancer when you don’t have any symptoms. It’s a great way of detecting some cancers early, when there’s a much better chance of treatment. It is recommended for specific groups where we know that there is a definite benefit. They are:

  • Women 50 – 74 years of age should attend mammographic screening for breast cancer every two years. (Whilst women aged 50-75 years are in our target age range for breast screening, all women over 40 are eligible to attend).
  • Women 18 -70 years of age should have a Pap test for cancer of the cervix every two years.
  • Men and women 50 years and over should test for bowel cancer using a Bowel cancer testing kit every two years.
  • Individuals who have a mother, father, sister or brother who has had cancer should see their doctor to discuss their individual risk.

What should I do if I am worried about a specific cancer?

If you have any concerns or if you have a family history, see your doctor to identify your own risk.

Cancer prevention for women

Finding cancer early improves your chances of successful treatment and long-term survival.

Look for:

  • lumps, sores or ulcers that don’t heal
  • unusual changes in your breasts – lumps, thickening, unusual discharge, nipples that suddenly turn inwards, changes in shape, colour or unusual pain
  • coughs that don’t go away, show blood, or a hoarseness that hangs around
  • weight loss that can’t be explained
  • any loss of blood, even a few spots between periods or after they stop
  • moles that have changed shape, size or colour, or an inflamed skin sore that hasn’t healed
  • blood in a bowel motion
  • persistent changes in toilet habits, or
  • persistent abdominal pain or bloating

Symptoms often relate to more common, less serious health problems. However, if you notice any unusual changes, or symptoms persist, visit your doctor.

Check for early breast cancer

If you are over 40 you can have a free BreastScreen Australia mammogram (breast x-ray) every two years. Mammograms look for early breast cancers in women without symptoms. Regular mammograms can reduce your risk of breast cancer death by 25%, particularly women in the 50-69 age group for whom benefit is highest.

 Have a regular Pap smear

Have a Pap smear every two years from the age of 18, or within one to two years of becoming sexually active. Pap smears can detect early changes in the cells of the cervix, so that they can be treated before cancer develops. Up to 90 per cent of cervical cancers can be prevented through regular Pap smears. In Australia, women can access a vaccine that can protect against the cause of most cervical cancers, human papillomavirus (HPV).  However, the vaccines do not protect against all HPV types that cause cervical cancers, therefore all vaccinated women will still need regular Pap smears. There are currently no screening tests for ovarian, uterine, endometrial, vulvar or vaginal cancers. Fortunately, these cancers are very rare. Be aware of what is normal for you and if you notice any changes or symptoms that persist, visit your doctor.

Ask about bowel cancer screening

Early detection of bowel cancer greatly improves chances of successful treatment. Your risk of bowel cancer increases with age. If you are over 50, you should be tested for bowel cancer every one to two years. The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP) uses the faecal occult blood test (FOBT) to detect hidden blood in bowel motions.

By 2020 the NBCSP aims to send a FOBT kit to people aged 50 to 74 every two years. Some people have known risk factors which put them at increased risk. If you do, your doctor will talk to you about regular surveillance.

 Ways to reduce your cancer risk

  • Stop smoking – lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in Australian women
  • Be SunSmart – protect yourself in the sun and take care not to burn
  • Stay in shape – aim for a healthy body weight
  • Move your body – be physically active for at least 30 – 40 minutes on most or all days
  • Eat for health – choose a varied diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables and limit your intake of red meat and processed meat
  • Avoid or limit alcohol – no more than two standard drinks a day (recommended by the National Health and Medical Research Council) and try for one or two alcohol-free days a week.  

For more information on the bowel cancer screening program and eligibility criteria go to www.cancerscreening.gov.au

Remember, if you have any concerns or questions, please contact your doctor.

 

Cancer prevention for men

Finding cancer early improves your chances of successful treatment and long-term survival.

Look for:

  • lumps, sores or ulcers that don’t heal.
  • unusual changes in your testicles – changes in shape, consistency or lumpiness.
  • coughs that don’t go away or show blood, a hoarseness that hangs around.
  • weight loss that can’t be explained.
  • moles that have changed shape, size or colour, or bleed, or an inflamed skin sore that hasn’t healed.
  • blood in a bowel motion.
  • persistent changes in toilet habits or
  • urinary problems or changes.
  • These symptoms are often related to more common, less serious health problems. However, if you notice any unusual changes, or these symptoms persist, visit your doctor.

Prostate screening

The cause of prostate cancer is not known and there is no single, simple test to detect prostate cancer. Prostate cancer may be suspected by the feeling of the prostate during a digital rectal examination (DRE) by your doctor and by a blood test to see if your prostate specific antigen (PSA) is above normal levels for your age.

If you have no symptoms and are thinking about having a PSA test, consider the risks and benefits. You need to balance the benefit of detecting a prostate cancer early against the risk that detection and treatment may not be necessary. Treatment may affect your lifestyle including sexual function, but may also save your life.

Make your own decision about whether to be tested after discussion with your doctor. Ensure you get good quality information to make an informed decision.

Changes in your testicles

Although testicular cancer is rare, it is one of the most common cancers in men aged between 15 and 45 years. It is also one of the most curable cancers if found early. The causes of this cancer are unclear, but men who have had an undescended testicle are at increased risk. Be aware of what is normal for you and if you see or feel any changes, see your doctor. Don’t let embarrassment get in the way.

Ask about screening for bowel cancer

Early detection of bowel cancer greatly improves chances of successful treatment. Your risk of bowel cancer increases with age. If you are over 50, you should be tested for bowel cancer every one to two years.

The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP) uses the faecal occult blood test (FOBT) to detect hidden blood in bowel motions.

Some people have known risk factors that put them at increased risk. If you do, your doctor will talk to you about regular surveillance.

Ways to reduce your cancer risk

  • Stop smoking – lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in Australian women
  • Be SunSmart – protect yourself in the sun and take care not to burn
  • Stay in shape – aim for a healthy body weight
  • Move your body – be physically active for at least 30 to 40 minutes on most or all days
  • Eat for health – choose a varied diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables and limit your intake of red meat and processed meat
  • Avoid or limit alcohol – no more than two standard drinks a day (recommended by the National Health and Medical Research Council) and try for one or two alcohol-free days a week.

For more information on the bowel cancer screening program ans eligibility go to www.cancerscreening.gov.au 

Remember, if you have any concerns or questions, please contact your doctor.

National Screening Programs

National screening programs are available in Australia to detect breast cancer, bowel cancer and cervical cancer.

These programs are available free of charge to people for whom there is evidence that the screening test can find a cancer at a stage when treatment is more effective.

The aim of screening programs is to pick up very early cancers in healthy individuals, who do not have symptoms

Bowel cancer screening

Bowel (or colorectal) cancer is the second most common cancer in Australia, and affects both men and women. It is the second most common cause of cancer death in Australia, but is highly curable if found early.

Evidence indicates that for maximum mortality and cost-saving benefits, all Australians aged 50 and over should be screened for bowel cancer every one to two years.

In 2006 the Australian Government introduced the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.

The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP) uses the faecal occult blood test (FOBT) to detect hidden blood in bowel motions. By 2020 the NBCSP aims to send a FOBT kit to people aged 50 to 74 every two years.

For government information about the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program, call the Information Line on 1800 118 868 (9am – 5pm across Australia) or go to www.cancerscreening.gov.au

How can people get screened while we wait for the government to expand its program?

If you are not yet eligible for the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program but are aged 50 or over, you should still have an FOBT every one to two years. This can be arranged through your doctor, or you can purchase a bowel screening kit from most pharmacies.

 

General advice

Any person who experiences persistent changes to their bowel habits, has a family history of bowel cancer or is concerned about bowel cancer, should see their doctor.

Breast cancer screening

Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in women after non-melanoma skin cancer1.  Early detection and appropriate treatment can significantly improve breast cancer survival.

BreastScreen Australia is a national mammography screening program available free of charge to women over the age of 40.

It is aimed at well women without symptoms, aged between 50 and 69 years (women aged 40-49 and 70 years and older are also able to attend if they wish).

Eligible women should be screened every two years. To make an appointment at your nearest BreastScreen Australia service phone 13 20 50 (cost of a local phone call).

Cancer Council Tasmania strongly recommends that women take part in the national breast screening program, while remaining breast aware at all times. If you notice any changes to the normal look and feel of your breasts at any time, see your doctor.

More information is available in Cancer Council Australia’s chapter on breast cancer in the National Cancer Prevention Policy.

If you would like to talk to someone about early detection of breast cancer call Cancer Council on 13 11 20.

Cervical cancer screening

The National Cervical Screening Program was introduced to Australia in 1991. Over the following 10 years, cervical cancer incidence almost halved, preventing more than 1200 new cases of the disease annually.

Women between the ages of 18 and 70 are advised to visit their GP for a free Pap test every two years. For further information call the screening information line on 13 15 56 (cost of a local phone call).

Prostate cancer screening

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer among Australians after non-melanoma skin cancer1 and the second-leading cause of cancer death after lung cancer.

Prostate cancer is complex – while some tumours grow quickly and prove lethal, others grow slowly and do not cause any harm in a normal lifespan.

Prostate cancer is more common in older men and those with a family history of the disease. If you are concerned about your risk of developing prostate cancer you should talk to your GP.

Tests, such as the prostate specific antigen (PSA) test, are available that may help to pick up the disease, however they are not currently shown to be effective for population-based screening.

If you have no symptoms of prostate cancer and are thinking about having a PSA test, you should ask your doctor about the risks and benefits.

It is important to balance the potential benefit of detecting a prostate cancer early against the risk that detection and treatment may not be necessary. Treatment may affect your lifestyle, but it may also save your life.

Make your own decision about whether to be tested after a discussion with your doctor. Ensure you get good quality information to make an informed decision.

Remember, if you have any concerns or questions, please contact your doctor.

If you require further information or would like to talk to someone about prostate cancer, call the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20.

 

Immunisation

Immunisation – stimulating the body’s immune system to protect against specific diseases – can help to prevent cancer by reducing the prevalence of precancerous viral infections.

The most prominent virus-related cancers are cervical cancers, 99.7% of which are linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV), and liver cancer, more than half of which are caused by persistent hepatitis B infection.

Both HPV and hepatitis B can be controlled through immunisation; cervical cancer burden is also controlled through screening, using the Pap test.  

For policy information on cancer and immunisation, see either the cervical cancer chapter or the hepatitis chapter of our National Cancer Prevention Policy.

Detailed information on Australian Government immunisation policy and services is available on the Immunise Australia Program website.

Human papillomavirus (HPV)

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted infection that is responsible for the majority of cervical cancer.

A new vaccine, Gardasil, protects against two strains of HPV which cause 70 per cent of cervical cancers. The vaccine is now available through the National Immunisation Program, however it has only proven to be effective in women who have never been sexually active.

Cancer Council Australia recommends women who have been sexually active at any time take part in the national cervical cancer screening program. Cancer Council acknowledges the likely benefits of the HPV vaccine for future generations, however it is not a replacement for screening at this time.

More information about cervical cancer screening and the HPV vaccine is available in Cancer Council’s position statement on cervical cancer screening.

If you need more information or would like to talk to someone about cervical cancer, the Pap test or HPV vaccine call Cancer Council on 13 11 20.

 

 

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