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Australian cancer research - Are we really getting closer to a cancer free future?

December 11, 2018

Australian cancer research - Are we really getting closer to a cancer free future?

As CEO of Cancer Council Australia, I am often asked if we are making progress when it comes to cancer.

With Australia investing millions of dollars in cancer research every year and daily news bulletins endlessly promoting promising breakthroughs - it's no surprise that the Australian community wants to be reassured that the work taking place around Australia is really making a difference. 

This week Cancer Council is proud to have launched our new National Research Impact Report - providing our community of supporters with more detail on the research we fund, and the impact our research investment is making.

In the past five years we have invested $288 million in Australian cancer research making us the largest non-government funder of cancer research in the country. In 2017, Cancer Council, along with our research partners, funded more than 650 researchers on 270 projects at 45 institutions.

The report shows just how wide the scope of Cancer Council conducted and funded research is - across all cancer types and all stages of the cancer journey.

Of the $59.2 million we invested with our research partners in 2017, over $36 million was directed to research that benefited all cancer types, while almost $23 million was specific to cancer type.

Research can help reduce the impact of cancer in many different ways and we support a wide range of research projects that:

  • Stops cancer before it starts by helping us improve prevention and early detection.
  • Unlocks cancer's secrets to better understand the causes and how it can be stopped from spreading.
  • Saves and extends lives with significant advancements in treatment.
  • Helps us find the best way to support those affected.

As someone who has worked in oncology and cancer control for 40 years since I started my career as a cancer nurse, it's easy to see how far we have come and plenty of highlights.

In 1954 the late Professor Donald Metcalf began his research at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute with a Carden Fellowship in Research from Cancer Council. At the time, there was little hope for most people diagnosed with cancer.

I still remember providing personal blood samples for his work when I worked at the same hospital as him in Melbourne.  

Today, Professor Metcalf's research saves many lives around the world, preventing the blood infections that can kill patients receiving chemotherapy which in turn improves cure rates. He is internationally recognised as the 'father of modern haematology' whose work has helped millions of cancer patients around the world. It's amazing to think how research funding can go and Cancer Council is proud to have supported Professor Metcalf's research for 60 years.

Another highlight is Australia's work in working towards ultimately eliminating cervical cancer as a public health issue

In the 1990s Professor Ian Frazer made a significant discovery that contributed to our capacity to develop a vaccine to protect against the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) the most common cause of cervical cancer.  Cancer Council helped to fund his early work through research grants. Cancer Council's advocacy work then helped Australia to become one of the first countries to implement HPV vaccination for girls (2006) and then boys (2013).

Following on from this work, Cancer Council researcher Professor Karen Canfell and her team helped to provide the evidence to inform improvements to our national cervical screening program, which was introduced in 2017. The new program is expected to reduce cervical cancer incidence and deaths by a further 20-30% over the long term in Australian women.

The new Cervical Screening Test combined with the national HPV immunisation program, means that Australia is now on track to become the first country in the world to eliminate cervical cancer as a public health issue. Our aim is also to use the efforts of the Australian experience to support translation into poorer countries where almost 600,000 women die of cervical cancer every year.

At Cancer Council we understand our responsibility to Australians who support us as well as to those who need us to fund research that will make the greatest difference to cancer outcomes.

The selection process for Cancer Council research grants is rigorous, transparent and competitive. Expert review panels ensure that funding goes to the most innovative ideas with the greatest potential for success both now and in the future.

Every research dollar we raise, goes to Australia's brightest cancer researchers to help us break new ground.

And our commitment is paying off. More Australians are taking practical steps to reduce cancer risk, getting more support to deal with cancer and, most importantly, more people are surviving cancer.

In the 1980s the cancer survival rate was less than 50%. Today, almost 7 in 10 Australians will survive at least 5 years after a cancer diagnosis and in some cancers survival is as high as 90%, while for others it is less than 20%. Making wise decisions about where to invest our limited dollars will help ensure we help to close this gap in outcomes.  

So, is research really bringing us to a cancer free future? The simple answer is yes, but there is still plenty of work to do, particularly when it comes to cancers like lung, liver and pancreatic cancer that continue to have very poor survival rates. We must also do more to improve outcomes for all Australians, particularly those in regional and remote areas, who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander or are socio-economically disadvantaged. All of these groups continue to have poorer cancer outcomes.

Every minute, every hour, every day Cancer Council researchers are helping us bring us closer to a cancer free future - but we wouldn't be making progress if we wasn't for people like you.

To find out more about the impact Cancer Council is having visit our How we help page.