Female doctor with female patient standing at mammography

Cancer screening

What cancer screening programs exist in Australia?

Cancer impacts the lives of many Australians every year, often with tragic consequences. According to the Cancer Council, more than 130,000 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed this year alone. In many cases, early detection is vital to the successful treatment of cancer, so it’s important to be aware of the screening options available before it’s too late.

What cancer screening programs exist in Australia?

The Australian Government funds screening programs for breast cancer, bowel cancer and cervical cancer. Let’s take a closer look at each of these programs and how they can help detect and combat cancer, even if you don’t have any symptoms yet.


BreastScreen Australia

The BreastScreen Australia program aims to reduce illness and death from breast cancer by actively recruiting and screening women aged 54 to 74 years. Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women and occurs when abnormal cells in breast tissue multiply and form a malignant tumour.

BreastScreen Australia has offered free breast screening services since 1991, when the disease caused 68 deaths per 100,000 women. By 2010, that figure had dropped to 43 deaths per 100,000.

It’s recommended that women over the age of 50 have a screening mammogram every two years, as detecting breast cancer early means that affected women have more treatment options available.

Trained radiographers perform mammograms in a private room. After you’ve removed your clothing from the waist up, the radiographer will place each breast, one at a time, between two plates on a mammogram machine. The machine will then press firmly on your breast for about 10 seconds as it takes a picture. The entire appointment takes less than half an hour.

Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) shows that in 2014-15, 54% of Australian women aged 50-74 received a mammogram through the program.

BreastScreen Australia offers free mammograms at more than 600 locations in every Australian state and territory. If you’re aged between 50 and 74 and you’d like to book a free mammogram, phone 13 20 50.


National Bowel Cancer Screening Program

The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program aims to reduce illness and death from bowel cancer by providing Australians over 50 years of age with a free, simple test they can perform in the privacy of their own home.

Approximately one in 23 Australians will develop cancer at some stage in their life, which is one of the highest rates in the world. Early detection is crucial to combat this disease. If found early enough, bowel cancer is one of the most treatable types of cancer.

When cells in the bowel lining grow too quickly, they form a polyp. These polyps are usually harmless, but the majority of bowel cancers develop from these small growths.

Bowel screening involves testing for cancer in people who do not display any obvious symptoms. A test called a Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) is used as part of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program to collect stool samples.Those samples are then analysed for tiny traces of blood. While this test cannot actually detect bowel cancer, it can determine whether further testing, usually in the form of a colonoscopy, is required.

Around the time you turn 50, you will receive a screening invitation, a free screening test kit and other information about the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program in the mail. The test is quick, simple and non-invasive, and you can do it all in the comfort of your home.

Once you’ve collected your samples, you can use the reply paid envelope in the screening kit to send them off to a pathology laboratory. The results will then be sent to you, your doctor or your health service within two weeks.

You don’t need to do anything to enrol in the program, as the names of eligible men and women are taken from the enrolment records of Medicare and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The program is transitioning towards two-yearly screening for bowel cancer, so the below table outlines at what age you will be invited to undergo screening.

YearEligible ages
201650, 55, 60, 64, 65, 70, 72, 74
201750, 54, 55, 58, 60, 64, 69, 70, 72, 74
201850, 54, 58, 60, 62, 64, 66, 68, 70, 72, 74
2019 onwards50, 52, 54, 56, 58, 60, 62, 64, 66, 68, 70, 72, 74

National Cervical Screening Program

The National Cervical Screening Program introduced an organised approach to cervical screening in an effort to reduce illness and death caused by cervical cancer. The program began in 1991 and has since halved the rate of cervical cancer in Australia.

Cervical screening is designed to detect early changes in the cervix before cervical cancer actually develops, but it can also detect if cervical cancer is present. One of the most preventable forms of cancer, cervical cancer comes in two main types:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma in the cells that line the outer surface of the cervix
  • Adenocarcinoma forms in the glandular cells found higher up in the cervix

Regular Pap tests (commonly called Pap smears) are recommended for every sexually active woman aged between 18 and 69 years of age. The procedure is quite straightforward and involves your health care professional inserting a speculum into the vagina to see the cervix more clearly. A small brush is used to gently remove some cells from the cervix, and that sample is then sent to a laboratory for testing.

Cervical screening can be provided through your general practice, community health centre, family planning clinic, sexual health clinic or Aboriginal Medical Service. There are two costs involved, the doctor’s consultation fee and the laboratory test, but Medicare pays rebates for both. Some medical practices and pathology laboratories also bulk bill, so in some cases there may not be any out-of-pocket costs.

However, from 1 May 2017 the Pap test will be replaced by a new Cervical Screening Test. Under the new system, women will only need to undergo screening every five years rather than every two. The age at which screening starts will increase from 18 to 25 years, and women aged 70 to 74 will be invited to take an exit test.

The procedure for collecting a sample for the new Cervical Screening Test is the same as the procedure for the Pap test. However, the new test is designed to detect human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, which is the first stage in the development of cervical cancer.

Cancer treatment costs covered by Medicare and private health insurance

Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment is not an endorsement and does not imply its appropriateness for your circumstances. Our information is not intended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional and you should not rely on this general information for diagnosis or answers for your particular circumstances. Instead seek advice from a registered health care professional. This content has been prepared for Australian audiences and was accurate at the time of publication but, over time, the currency and completeness of the published material may change.

Picture: Shutterstock

Tim Falk

A freelance writer with a passion for the written word, Tim loves helping Australians find the right home loans and savings accounts. When he's not chained to a computer, Tim can usually be found exploring the great outdoors.

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