Cancer rates higher in disadvantaged, remote parts of western Victoria

Media release
23 October 2016

New Deakin University research has mapped cancer prevalence across western Victoria, showing increased rates in more disadvantaged and remote areas.

Lead researcher Stephanie Cowdery, a PhD student in Deakin's School of Medicine, said the data painted a better picture of where cancer prevention, diagnosis and care initiatives should be targeted, so resources can be deployed to the areas that need them most.

The research is part of the Ageing Chronic Disease and Injury Study being carried out by a team at Deakin and Barwon Health's Epi-Centre for Healthy Ageing in the Centre for Innovation in Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Treatment.

Ms Cowdery collected data from the Victorian Cancer Registry for adults aged 40-plus between 2010 and 2013 and matched it with information from 21 local government areas across western Victoria - including the regional cities of Geelong, Ballarat, Horsham and Warrnambool.

"We found that cancer incidence rates vary among men and women and across local government areas and increase with advancing age, greater socio-economic disadvantage, remoteness and lower accessibility," Ms Cowdery said.

The results also showed:

  • Cancer cases were slightly weighted towards men (54 per cent), reflecting a national and global trend typically linked to modifiable risk factors like diet and exercise;
  • Breast cancer had the highest incidence rates for women, prostate cancer for men, and bowel cancer overall; and
  • West Wimmera recorded the highest cancer rate overall for men, while for women it was Ararat.

"Identifying inequalities in rural and regional health service delivery is important and it's hoped these findings will assist in implementing targeted and improved services at all points of the cancer continuum from prevention strategies, screening services, treatment, survivorship and palliation," Ms Cowdery said.

Ms Cowdery said cancer was a leading burden of disease in Australia, and with the country's rapidly ageing population that burden would only increase, alongside a subsequent increase in need for appropriate health services.

"About 60 per cent of new cancer diagnoses in Australia occur in those over 65," she said.

"Over the next decade, the annual number of new cancer diagnoses is anticipated to increase by more than a third, and deaths by almost one fifth.

"This increase is expected to be felt even more keenly in regional areas where cancer incidence is higher than the cities and survival is lower. This difference is often attributed to reduced access to screening and treatment services in rural areas, an older population and lower socioeconomic status.

"That's why this research is vital in order to understand the impact of the region's increasing ageing population, as well as factors such as socioeconomic status and accessibility on cancer incidence and mortality."

But Ms Cowdery said there was no need for those living in western Victoria to be alarmed if their district was identified as an area of higher incidence.

"Just because you live in an area of high incidence, that doesn't necessarily mean you have a higher risk of getting cancer, as incidence rates may reflect the general health and lifestyles of people living in your area and may not reflect your own individual risk," she said.

"Importantly, these findings can serve as a timely reminder to have a discussion with your GP about your general health and take part in appropriate cancer screening programs."

'Mapping Cancer incidence across Western Victoria: The association with age, accessibility, and socioeconomic status among men and women' was recently published in the journal BMC Cancer.

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