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Bowel cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia. One in 22 Australian men and one in 30 women will develop bowel cancer before the age of 75.[1] In 2015, 15,604 new cases of bowel cancer were reported – 8573 in men and 7031 in women – representing around one in every 13 new cases of cancer diagnosed in Australia (excluding non-melanoma skin cancer).[1]

Although the rate of bowel cancer diagnoses is projected to decrease in men and remain stable in women, the expected increase and ageing of the population mean the projected number of cases will continue to rise.[2]

Bowel cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer overall, as well as the third most common cause of death from cancer in men (after lung and prostate cancers) and the third most common in women (after lung and breast cancers).[3] In 2016, there were 5375 deaths in Australia from bowel cancer: 2936 in men and 2439 in women.[1] However, this does not include deaths due to malignant neoplasm of intestinal tract (part unspecified) and may be an underestimation of bowel cancer deaths.[4] The rate of bowel cancer deaths declined steadily over the 20-year period from 1989–2012.[1] Despite the trend towards improved survival, bowel cancer remains an important cause of premature death in Australia.

In Indigenous communities, where incidence rates are believed to be under-recorded, bowel cancer is the third most common cancer affecting both men and women.[5] The survival rate from bowel cancer is lower for Indigenous than non-Indigenous Australians.[6] It is also recognised that Indigenous Australians often have co-morbidities that may hinder the effectiveness of cancer treatments.[7]

Economic costs

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data on bowel cancer expenditure in Australia estimated that bowel cancer cost the Australian health system $460 million in 2008-09 – making it the nation’s most expensive cancer.[8] Of this, $388 million was spent on hospital inpatient services, compared with $33 million on bowel cancer screening.[8]

Since then, the emergence of new high-cost drugs for treating bowel cancer, along with an increase in incidence in line with population ageing, has led to substantial growth in bowel cancer treatment costs in Australia. A modelling study on health expenditure on treatment for bowel cancer has estimated the overall costs to reach $2 billion by 2040 in the absence of a population screening program,[9] which is double the cost estimate of $1 billion by 2013.[10] This is expected to make bowel cancer the nation’s most expensive cancer to treat.

The introduction of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program using a phased roll out from 2008 to 2012, at a cost of around $30 million per annum,[11] has also increased overall bowel cancer expenditure in Australia. However, the increase in expenditure is predicted to be transient until 2028. From 2029, annual expenditure is expected to decrease by $1.7 billion between 2030- 2040 if participation rates remain at 40%.[9] Further reductions are expected if higher participation rates are achieved ($2.0 billion at 50% participation and $2.1 billion at 60% participation).[9]


  1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Australian Cancer Incidence and Mortality (ACIM) books. [homepage on the internet] Canberra: AIHW; 2017 Available from:
  2. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Cancer incidence projections: Australia, 2011 to 2020. Cancer Series no. 66. Cat. No. CAN 62. Canberra: AIHW; 2012.
  3. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Cancer in Australia 2017. Canberra: AIHW; 2017 Feb. Report No.: Cancer Series No. 101, Cat. no. CAN 100. Available from:
  4. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Causes of Death, Australia, 2015. Canberra: ABS; 2016 [cited 2018]. Report No.: 3303.0. Available from:[email protected]/Lookup/by%20Subject/3303.0~2015~Main%20Features~Complexities%20in%20the%20measurement%20of%20bowel%20cancer%20in%20Australia~7.
  5. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. The health and welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples: 2015. Canberra: AIHW; 2015 Jun. Report No.: Cat. no. IHW 147. Available from:
  6. Condon JR, Barnes T, Cunningham J, Armstrong BK. Long-term trends in cancer mortality for Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory. Med J Aust 2004 May 17;180(10):504-7 Available from:
  7. Valery PC, Coory M, Stirling J, Green AC. Cancer diagnosis, treatment, and survival in Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians: a matched cohort study. Lancet 2006 Jun 3;367(9525):1842-8 Available from:
  8. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Health system expenditure on cancer and other neoplasms in Australia 2008-09. Canberra: AIHW; 2013 Dec 16. Report No.: Cancer series 81. Cat. no. CAN 78. Available from:
  9. Lew JB, St John DJB, Xu XM, Greuter MJE, Caruana M, Cenin DR, et al. Long-term evaluation of benefits, harms, and cost-effectiveness of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program in Australia: a modelling study. Lancet Public Health 2017 Jul;2(7):e331-e340 Available from:
  10. Ananda S, Kosmider S, Tran B, Field K, Jones I, Skinner I, et al. The rapidly escalating cost of treating colorectal cancer in Australia. Asia Pac J Clin Oncol 2016 Mar;12(1):33-40 Available from:
  11. Commonwealth of Australia. Portfolio budget statements 2008-09: budget related paper no. 1.10. Health and ageing portfolio. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia; 2008 Available from:$File/Health%20and%20Ageing%20Portfolio%20Budget%20Statements%202008-09.pdf.

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