Cancer Council Australia

Annual Review 2017-2018

Prevention highlights

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Improving cancer prevention


Research funded by Cancer Council Australia has shown that one in three cancers are preventable. This means about 37,000 cancer cases could be prevented each year in Australia.

Preventable causes of cancer include smoking, too much UV exposure, poor diet, high body mass (being overweight), alcohol consumption, viruses (such as hepatitis B and C and human papillomavirus), physical inactivity, and workplace exposures to cancer-causing substances.

The most recent cancer data for Australia shows our cancer incidence and death rates are continuing to fall. But the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report Cancer in Australia 2017, published in February 2017, also revealed some of the key challenges ahead. Cancer Council Australia highlighted the missed opportunities in bowel cancer screening, which could significantly reduce bowel cancer deaths, and the rising rate of liver cancer in Australia, linked to increases in hepatitis B and C infections and obesity, as well as excessive alcohol consumption.

Cancer Council has been helping prevent cancer for more than 50 years, leading in areas such as sun protection and tobacco control, including anti-smoking public education campaigns. As well as promoting healthy lifestyle choices and encouraging Australians to participate in early detection programs through our public education campaigns, increasing cancer prevention is a key focus of our policy development and advocacy activity.

Quitting smoking

Tobacco smoking causes around 15,500 cancer cases in Australia each year. Most are lung cancers, but tobacco smoking also causes 15 other cancer types and a wide range of other serious health conditions. Two of every three deaths in long-term smokers can be directly attributed to smoking.

Cancer Council has been a leading voice in efforts to reduce smoking rates through tobacco control. For example, in 2011 Australia introduced world-leading tobacco plain packaging legislation, a concept Cancer Council first promoted in 1993.

The good news is that smoking rates are falling. In 1945, 72% of Australian males and 26% of Australian females smoked, but according to the latest figures from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) 2016, Australia’s overall smoking rate is now below 13%. Smoking in teenagers is also reaching record lows, with more than 98% of 12-17 year olds reporting never having tried a cigarette.

Cancer Council reminds Australians of the importance of quitting and calls for policies and initiatives to help make quitting easier through media activities and ongoing advocacy. On World No Tobacco Day, 31 May 2017, Cancer Council and the Heart Foundation jointly called for action to help reduce smoking rates in Indigenous communities. Across the country, Cancer Council helps Australians quit smoking through education and awareness campaigns, operating Quit lines (in Victoria and SA), research, pilot programs and international thought leadership, and advocating for smoke-free areas in the community.

Reducing UV exposure

Two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime, and sadly over 2,000 will die as a result each year.

Cancer Council has been reminding Australians to “slip, slop, slap” since Sid the Seagull walked on to our TV screens in the 1980s, and thanks to our ongoing education campaigns, most Australians are well aware of skin cancer and the actions they can take to prevent it.  

The good news is that sun protection education is working. We welcomed a new government report, released in July 2016, that showed melanoma rates in Australians under 40 are declining. However, the report also showed that the overall number of skin cancer cases and costs of treating them is continuing to rise, due to the ongoing impact of skin damage in the baby boomer population done before skin cancer awareness campaigns were initiative in Australia. Following the report, Cancer Council again called on the federal government to fund a national skin cancer awareness campaign to remind Australians of the importance of protecting and checking their skin.

Cancer Council is working to reduce the impact of skin cancer through education, awareness campaigns and supporting schools, childcare centres, sport and community centres to improve sun protection measures. Our national SunSmart Schools Program has increased awareness and UV protection for more than 1.3 million children in Australian schools each year. Our national partnership with eftpos – providing grants to secondary schools to increase shade – was extended to another 18 schools in 2017. More than 45,000 secondary school students will be better protected during the peak UV exposure times thanks to this initiative to increase shade structures in school grounds.

Each year we partner with the Australasian College of Dermatologists to raise awareness about skin cancer during National Skin Cancer Action Week. In November 2016 we released new findings from Cancer Council-funded research that showed fewer Australians are wearing hats and are getting sunburnt on their head as a result. We reminded Australians to use five forms of sun protection – including a broad brim hat, protective clothing, shade, sunglasses and sunscreen. Our media activity generated over 100 reports by a range of media outlets, reaching a total audience of over 16.1 million people. Cancer Council Australia Facebook posts reached about 155,000 people, generating over 500 shares and more than 1,700 reactions, likes and comments.

We also help Australian families reduce their skin cancer risk by providing a broad range of affordable, quality sun protection products.

Nutrition and physical activity

The evidence of links between what we eat, body weight, physical inactivity and cancer is rapidly growing. As knowledge increases, Cancer Council has worked to quickly put it into action, sharing information and advice and recommending policy measures to help Australians reduce their cancer risk.

Across the country Cancer Council encourages local communities to adopt a healthy lifestyle, including maintaining a healthy weight, eating a balanced diet, limiting processed meats, limiting alcohol and being physically active, through education and campaigns like Live Lighter, adopted by Cancer Council WA and Cancer Council Victoria, or Eat It to Beat It in NSW.

Evidence now shows that being overweight or obese is the cause of nearly 4,000 cancer cases in Australia each year. Research we funded from the National Secondary Students’ Diet and Activity survey, published in Public Health Nutrition in February 2017, found that one in six teenage boys consume at least 52 litres of soft drink each year. Soft drink consumption was also linked to other unhealthy eating and lifestyle habits. The findings were reported in over 80 media stories, and added weight to our calls for the Australian Government to introduce a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages to help reduce consumption.

Physical inactivity is also a cancer risk. Over 1,800 cases of bowel, breast (post-menopause) and endometrial cancer could be prevented each year if Australians were physically active for more than 150 minutes per week. On World Cancer Day, 4 February, we focused on actions individuals can take to reduce their cancer risk, with a specific focus on physical activity. As the official charity partner for the HSBC Sydney Rugby Sevens, held in Sydney on the World Cancer Day weekend, we were able to inform over 70,000 fans about ways to prevent cancer, including by getting more exercise. Our call for Australians to be more active to reduce their cancer risk appeared across numerous media outlets, including and SBS Online, and was promoted through our social media channels.

Early detection

Cancer Council provides information and education to help Australians know the signs and symptoms of cancer, and encourages everyone (when eligible) to participate in the national screening programs that are designed to detect cancer before symptoms appear.

Cancer Council is the only charity that has driven reform in cancer screening and has been represented on intergovernmental bodies that set up Australia’s successful screening programs for cervical, breast and bowel cancers.

Many cancers can be treated easily and effectively if discovered early. For some cancers, there are changes or precursors that can be discovered through screening programs and treated to prevent cancer developing.

In 2013, the then federal opposition campaigned on our recommendation to complete the rollout of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program well ahead of schedule. The program is now on track to be fully implemented by 2020. We continue to promote the need for more Australians to participate and to call for federal funding for a national awareness campaign. New research from Cancer Council NSW published in The Lancet in June 2017 estimated that 84,000 bowel cancer deaths could be prevented by 2040 if 60% of Australians who receive the free two-yearly home screening test complete it. Currently, only around 40% of eligible men and women use the kit.

Screening for cervical cancer is also life-saving. The cervical cancer death rate in Australia has halved since the introduction of the national screening program in 1991. In December 2017 the national screening program changed to a new five-yearly human papillomavirus (HPV) test. Cancer Council significantly contributed to the program renewal, with modelling for the renewed screening program performed by researchers at Cancer Council NSW, including the Chair of our National Screening and Immunisation Committee, Professor Karen Canfell. Cancer Council Australia’s guidelines development team produced the clinical guidelines for healthcare professionals for managing cervical abnormalities under the new program.

Cancer risks in the workplace

Occupational exposures to carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) are estimated to cause over 5,000 new cases of cancer in Australia each year.

In the past year Cancer Council has been active in making Australians aware of cancer risks in their workplaces including UV exposure, diesel emissions, exposure to welding, and asbestos. We added information to our website to highlight the most common workplace risks and strategies to avoid or reduce them.

In October 2016 we highlighted the risk of diesel exposure in workplaces, which is linked to 130 cancer cases in Australia each year. Our media activity resulted in 65 media reports and significant social media discussion, helping inform Australians about workplace risks.


This page was last updated on: Thursday, December 21, 2017