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National cancer screening programs

The national cancer screening programs

A summary of the three screening programs and who is eligible to screen

It is important to understand the national cancer screening programs, including:

  • who is eligible to screen
  • cost of screening
  • effectiveness of screening
  • the process of screening, and
  • the patient pathway if your client gets a positive screening result.

The national screening programs

Cancer is the second highest cause of death in Australia, but some some cancers can be found early or even prevented through national screening programs such as for breast, bowel and cervical cancer.

Breast, bowel and cervical cancers can develop without symptoms. Screening aims to find early signs of cancer when it is easier to treat. Cancer screening is for people

  • without symptoms
  • without a strong family history, and;
  • who have not had a recent abnormal screening result or cancer and require ongoing involvement from their medical practitioner.

There are three cancer screening programs Australians are encouraged to take part in.

  • Men and women aged 50 to 74 are encouraged to do the at-home bowel screening test every two years.
  • Women aged 50 to 74 are encouraged to have a mammogram for breast cancer every two years.
  • Women aged 25 to 74 should have regular cervical screening to help prevent cervical cancer every five years.
  • The table below is a summary of the national screening programs in Australia.

Cervical Breast Bowel
Women 25–49 years *
Women 50–74 years * * *
Men 50–74 years *

Health workers are often asked why screening programs are not offered to younger people, below are some explanations why:

  • Bowel cancer is rare in younger Victorians with 358 new cases (9% of total) in 2015 diagnosed in those aged less than 50 years, therefore screening is offered to people aged 50–74. People over 74 are advised to speak to their GP. For more information, visit the Cancer Council's bowel cancer website.
  • The incidence of breast cancer increases with age. In 2017, it was estimated around 80% of new cases will be diagnosed in women over 50 years, therefore the national breast screening program starts at the age of 50. Women aged 40-49 are eligible to participate in the breastscreen program, they are just not invited.
  • Cervical cancer in women under 25 is rare and the types of cervical cancers that can occur in young women are very difficult to detect through routine screening, therefore the Cervical Screening Test is offered to women aged 25 to 74. For more information, visit Cancer Council Australia's Cervical Screening website.

Evidence-based sources of information

It is important that project leaders and health professionals know the principles of cancer screening programs in Australia. But, you aren’t expected to know all the answers. If you are feeling uncertain, you can direct questions to an evidence-based source, such as Cancer Council Victoria and the Australian Government Cancer Screening websites. The principles of cancer screening programs, adopted by the World Health Organization, are also available.