Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders – Higher Rates of Cancer

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Source: Cancer Australia and ABC’s PM Program

CANCER Australia’s 2013 study ‘Cancer in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia’ reports depressing results, namely that cancer incidence and mortality rates for Indigenous Australians are still significantly higher than those for non-Indigenous Australians.


In 2004-2008, Indigenous Australians had a higher rate of new cancer cases diagnosed than non-Indigenous Australians (461 compared with 434 per 100,000) with lung cancer being the most commonly diagnosed tumour type. Mortality rates are startlingly higher for Indigenous Australians than for non-Indigenous Australians (252 compared with 172 per 100,000). Five year survival rates were also significantly lower – just 40% for Indigenous Australians, compared to 52% for non-Indigenous Australians. 

The report found that Indigenous Australians are also less likely to be hospitalised for a principal diagnosis of cancer

Statistical Spotlight – Breast Cancer:

Whilst only 36% of Indigenous women participated in breast screening programs (18% less than non-Indigenous females, of whom 54% participated in the period 2003-07) Indigenous women diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003-2007 had a 100% higher risk of dying from any cause by 2010 than non-Indigenous females.

Atrocious Findings:

Kristin Carson, chair of the Indigenous Lung Health working party for the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand, said it’s sad that she’s not shocked by the findings in an ABC interview. “This is something that has been going on for such a long time. I mean, we know that there is a disparity in health between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It’s actually atrocious.”

“A lot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who see this probably already know it. They live this. This is the reality and I guess it’s these types of more shocking statistics that bring the kind of problems that we’re having to light.”

Lifestyle Factors:

cigaretteHelen Zorbas, CEO of  Cancer Australia attributed the shocking statistics to lifestyle factors, including “tobacco smoking, alcohol consumption, poor diet, lower levels of physical activity and higher levels of infections such as hepatitis B. In addition to that, Indigenous peoples are less likely to participate in screening programs.”

“Also, the proportion of Indigenous people who live in regional and rural and remote areas is higher than for non-Indigenous people and therefore access to care and services – we have a higher proportion of Indigenous people who discontinue treatment.”

The report highlighted certain lifestyle risk factors to partially explain some cancer incidence and mortality patterns such as:

  • Liver cancer: Indigenous Australians are 3 times as likely to develop, and 3.3 times as likely to die from liver cancer and had a lower chance of surviving another 1 year (21% compared with 33%) than non-Indigenous Australians. Higher rates of risky alcohol consumption and higher prevalence of hepatitis B infection in this population group may be contributing factors.
  • Cervical cancer: Indigenous females are 2.8 times as likely to develop and 3.9 times as likely to die from cervical cancer and had a lower chance of surviving another 5 years (51% compared with 67%) than non-Indigenous females. A contributing factor in the higher rates in Indigenous females could be lower rates of cervical screening for this population group.
  • Lung cancer: Indigenous Australians are 1.9 times as likely to develop and die from lung cancer as non-Indigenous Australians. A contributing factor may be the higher prevalence of smoking among Indigenous Australians than non-Indigenous Australians (38% compared with 18%).

Reference: AIHW, Cancer Australia 2013. Cancer in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia: an overview. Cancer series 78. Cat. no. CAN 75. Canberra: AIHW.


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The ONA Editor curates oncology news, views and reviews from Australia and around the world for our readers. In aggregated content, original sources will be acknowledged in the article footer.

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