Common cancer types

The below information provides an overview of a number of common cancers in Australia. This has been sourced from the Cancer Council Australia website (1).

Brain cancer

Brain cancers include primary brain tumours, which start in the brain and almost never spread to other parts of the body, and secondary tumours (or metastases), which are caused by cancers that began in another part of the body.

There are more than 40 major types of brain tumours, which are grouped into two main types: benign and malignant. Benign tumours are slow-growing and unlikely to spread. Common types are meningiomas, neuromas, pituitary tumours and cranio-pharyngiomas. Malignant tumours are cancerous and able to spread into other parts of the brain or spinal cord. Common types include astrocytomas, oligodendrogliomas, ependymomas, glioblastomas and mixed gliomas.

There are more than 1400 new cases of brain cancer each year in Australia. The risk of being diagnosed by age 85 is 1 in 109 for men and 1 in 156 for women.

The causes of brain tumours are not known. Some brain and spinal cord tumours are more common in people with certain inherited or genetic conditions, and people exposed to very high doses of radiation.

Breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common invasive cancer in women after non-melanoma skin cancer and the second most common cancer causing death after lung cancer. It is uncommon in males.

There are more than 12,700 new cases a year in Australia. The risk of being diagnosed by age 85 is 1 in 9 for women and 1 in 767 for men.

In 2006, 2625 women and 25 men died of breast cancer.

Mammographic screening every two years is recommended for women aged 50-70 years, though it is available to women from 40 years of age. Younger women in high risk groups may be screened by Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).

The causes of breast cancer are unknown, but risk factors include:

  • increasing age;
  • family history;
  • inheritance of mutations in the genes BRCA2, BRCA1 and CHEK2;
  • exposure to female hormones (natural and administered);
  • obesity (poor diet and inadequate exercise); and
  • excess alcohol consumption.

There is also an association with some benign breast disease and past exposure to radiation.

Bladder cancer

Bladder cancer is one of the 10 most common cancers in Australia.

More than 2360 new cases of bladder cancer were diagnosed in Australia in 2006. It is much more common in men - the risk of bladder cancer by age 85 is 1 in 38 for men, compared to 1 in 142 for women.

In 2006, there were 898 deaths from bladder cancer.

The exact causes of bladder cancer are not known, however factors that put some people at higher risk are:

  • smoking cigarettes;
  • workplace exposure to certain chemicals used in dyeing in the textile, petrochemical and rubber industries; and
  • use of the chemotherapy drug cyclophosphamide (which can increase the long-term risk of bladder cancer).

Chronic inflammation of the bladder has been linked to squamous cell carcinoma of the bladder.

Cancer of unknown primary

Cancer of unknown primary (CUP) is the term used to describe a metastatic cancer (cancer that has spread) with an unknown starting point.

CUP is the seventh most common cancer and third most common cause of cancer death in Australians, causing about 10% of cancer deaths.

Usually, when cancer spreads the secondary cancer cells look like abnormal versions of the primary cancer cells (in the tissue where the cancer began) eg. if breast cancer spreads to the lungs, the metastatic tumour in the lung is made up of cancerous breast cells (not lung cells) and is then described as metastatic breast cancer (not lung cancer). If it is not possible to identify the type of cancer cells the diagnosis is CUP.

There are around 3200 new cases of CUP each year in Australia. The risk of CUP before the age of 85 is 1 in 45 for men and 1 in 61 for women.

In 2006, there were 3920 deaths from CUP.

For patients with CUP the primary cancer site is not known, therefore it is difficult to identify risk factors. Smoking may be an important risk factor, as more than half of CUP patients have a history of smoking. Other risk factors may include older age, diet, alcohol and obesity – common risk factors for many cancers.

Cervical cancer

The most common cervical cancer is squamous cell carcinoma, accounting for 80% of cases. Adenocarcinoma is less common and more difficult to diagnose because it starts higher in the cervix.

There were 715 new cases of cervical cancer diagnosed in Australia in 2006. The risk of a woman being diagnosed by age 85 is 1 in 163.

In 2006, there were 227 deaths from cervical cancer. Cervical cancer death rates have more than halved since the National Cervical Screening Program began in 1991.

The National Cervical Screening Program recommends Pap tests for all women 18-70 years of age who have ever had sex and have not had a hysterectomy. Women should start having Pap tests every two years from 18-20 years of age, or one to two years after sexual activity commences, whichever is earlier.

The cause of cervical cancer is unknown. Factors that put some women at a higher risk of cervical cancer include:

  • infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV);
  • being the daughter of a woman who used the drug diethylstilboestrol (DES) during pregnancy to prevent a miscarriage;
  • smoking, which increases the risk of cervical cancer fourfold.

Around eight out of 10 women will become infected with genital HPV at some time in their lives. It causes no symptoms. Most women who have the HPV infection never get cervical cancer; only a few types of the HPV result in cervical cancer.

Colorectal cancer

Excluding non-melanoma skin cancer colorectal cancer, commonly called bowel cancer, is the second most common cancer in both men and women in Australia. Eighty per cent of cases have no known hereditary genetic associations. Colorectal cancer is preceded by adenomas (polyps), which may become invasive cancer if undetected.

There are more than 13,500 new cases each year. The risk of being diagnosed by age 85 is 1 in 10 for men and 1 in 14 for women.

In 2006, there were 3809 deaths from colorectal cancer.

Risk factors include age, inherited genetic risk, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity and smoking.

Head and neck cancers

Head and neck cancers occur inside the sinuses, nose, mouth and salivary glands down through the throat. Although the cancers are different, they are treated similarly, so are considered as a group.
There are approximately 2750 cases of head and neck cancer diagnosed in Australia each year, almost 3% of cancers diagnosed. The risk of being diagnosed by age 85 is 1 in 40 for men and 1 in 137 for women.

In 2006, there were 827 deaths from head and neck cancers.

The main causes are alcohol and tobacco consumption. Some head and neck cancers are related to human papilloma virus infection.

Kidney cancer

Kidney cancer is the ninth most common cancer diagnosed in Australian men and twelfth most common cancer in women. The most common type of kidney cancer is renal cell carcinoma, accounting for about 90% of all cases. Usually only one kidney is affected, but in rare cases the cancer may develop in both kidneys.

There were more than 2500 new cases diagnosed in Australia in 2006. The risk of being diagnosed by age 85 is 1 in 101 for women and 1 in 51 for men.

In 2006, there were 857 deaths from kidney cancer.

The causes of kidney cancer are not known, but factors that put some people at higher risk are:

  • smoking;
  • overuse of pain relievers containing phenacetin (this chemical is now banned);
  • workplace exposure to asbestos or cadmium (construction workers, dock workers, painters and printers);
  • a family history of kidney cancer; and
  • being male: men are more likely to develop kidney cancer than women.

Leukaemia

Leukaemias are cancers of the white blood cells, which begin in the bone marrow.

There are several types, which are grouped in two ways: the type of white blood cell affected – lymphoid or myeloid; and how quickly the disease develops and gets worse – acute leukaemia appears suddenly and grows quickly while chronic leukaemia appears gradually and develops slowly over months to years.

There are more than 2600 new cases a year in Australia, making leukaemia the eighth most common cancer overall. About 40% of cases are acute leukaemia. The risk of being diagnosed by age 85 is 1 in 51 for men and 1 in 87 for women.

In 2006, there were 1459 deaths from leukaemia.

The cause of acute leukaemia is unknown, but factors that put some people at higher risk are:

  • exposure to intense radiation;
  • exposure to certain chemicals, such as benzene; and
  • viruses like the Human T-Cell leukaemia virus.

Most people diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia have an abnormal chromosone called the Philadelphia chromosone. It has also been linked to exposure to high levels of radiation.

Lung cancer - small cell

Lung cancer is the fifth most common cancer in Australia.

About one in five lung cancers are small cell lung cancers. Small cell lung cancer has usually spread into the bloodstream by the time it is diagnosed.

There are approximately 9560 cases of lung cancer (small cell and non small cell) diagnosed in Australia each year, about 9% of all cancers. The risk of being diagnosed by age 85 is 1 in 12 for men and 1 in 24 for women.

Lung cancer causes almost one in five cancer deaths. In 2006, there were 7397 deaths from lung cancer.

Cigarette smoking is the major cause, although some people diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked.

Lung cancer - non small cell

Lung cancer is the fifth most common cancer in Australia.

Four out of five lung cancers are non small cell lung cancers, broadly divided by their main cell type into squamous cell, adenocarcinoma and large cell.

If detected early they can initially be managed with local treatments such as surgery and/or radiotherapy.

There are approximately 9560 cases of lung cancer diagnosed in Australia each year (small cell and non small cell), about 9% of all cancers. The risk of being diagnosed by age 85 is 1 in 12 for men and 1 in 24 for women.

Lung cancer causes almost one in five cancer deaths. In 2006, there were 7397 deaths from lung cancer.

Cigarette smoking is the major cause, although some people diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked. Occupational exposures to asbestos, radon, hydrocarbons and metals (e.g. chromium, nickel) are also associated with lung cancer.

Lymphoma

Lymphomas are the most common form of haematological or blood cancer in Australia, and the sixth most common form of cancer overall. There are two main types of lymphoma – non-Hodgkin lymphoma and Hodgkin lymphoma – which spread and are treated differently. Almost 90% of lymphomas are non-Hodgkin.

There are more than 4400 new cases a year in Australia. The risk of being diagnosed by age 85 is 1 in 48 for women and 1 in 33 for men. The incidence of lymphomas has more than doubled over the past 20 years and is continuing to rise, for no known reason.

In 2006, there were 1487 deaths from lymphoma.

The causes of lymphoma are not yet known. Exposure to radiation and certain chemicals puts some people at higher risk. For people whose immune system is suppressed, exposure to the AIDS or Epstein-Barr virus increases their risk of developing lymphoma.

Melanoma

Excluding non-melanoma skin cancer, melanoma is the fourth most common cancer in Australia, which along with New Zealand has the world’s highest incidence rate for melanoma.
Melanoma represents 10% of all cancers, with more than 10,300 cases diagnosed annually. The risk of being diagnosed by age 85 is 1 in 14 for men and 1 in 24 for women.

In 2008, there were 1430 deaths from melanoma.

Individuals at high risk of melanoma should be taught to check their skin for irregular or changing lesions, and have annual checks by a dermatologist.

Often melanoma has no symptoms, however it can be associated with changes that relate to ‘ABCDE’ - Asymmetry, irregular Border, uneven Colour, Diameter (usually over 6mm), Evolving (changing and growing). Other symptoms include dark areas under nails or on membranes lining the mouth, vagina or anus.

Diagnosis is by biopsy to remove the whole lesion.

Melanoma risk increases with exposure to UV radiation, particularly with episodes of sunburn (especially during childhood).

Melanoma risk is increased for people who have:

  • increased numbers of unusual moles (dysplastic naevi);
  • depressed immune systems;
  • a family history of melanoma in a first degree relative;
  • fair skin, a tendency to burn rather than tan, freckles, light eye colour, light or red hair colour; and
  • had a previous melanoma or non-melanoma skin cancer.

Non-melanoma skin cancer

Non-melanoma skin cancers are the most common cancers in Australia, however most are not life-threatening.

The two main types are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. A third group of lesions called keratinocyte dysplasias includes solar keratosis, Bowenoid keratosis and squamous cell carcinoma in-situ (Bowen’s disease). These are not invasive cancers, however may require treatment as some may develop into non-melanoma skin cancers.

About 434,000 Australians are treated for non-melanoma skin cancer each year.

In 2008, there were 420 deaths from non-melanoma skin cancer.

Skin cancer occurs when skin cells are damaged, for example, by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Between 95% and 99% of skin cancers in Australia are caused by exposure to the sun. The risk of skin cancer is increased for people who have:

  • increased numbers of unusual moles (dysplastic naevi);
  • fair skin, a tendency to burn rather than tan, freckles, light eye colour, light or red hair colour; and
  • had a previous skin cancer.

Ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer is the ninth most common cancer affecting women in Australia.

There are three types of ovarian cancer: the common epithelial type (90% of cases) that arises from the cells on the outside of the ovary; the germ cell type that arises from the cells which produce eggs; and the rare stromal type arising from supporting tissues within the ovary.

More than 1200 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year. The risk of being diagnosed before age 85 is 1 in 77.

In 2006, there were 810 deaths from ovarian cancer.

There are no proven screening tests, although ultrasound through the vagina and a blood test, CA125, are being investigated.

The cause of ovarian cancer is not known, however risk factors include:

  • ageing (risk increases for women over 50);
  • family history;
  • changes in the genes BRCA1 or BRCA2;
  • being of Northern European or Northern or Ashkenazi Jewish descent;
  • early onset of periods (before 12 years) and late menopause;
  • childlessness;
  • infertility;
  • first child after 30;
  • never taking oral contraceptives; and
  • using oestrogen only hormone replacement therapy or fertility treatment.

Pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is the tenth most common cancer in Australian women and eleventh most common in men. Unfortunately pancreatic cancer has a low survival rate as it is most often diagnosed at an advanced stage.

There were more than 2200 new cases in Australia in 2006. The risk of being diagnosed by age 85 is 1 in 78 for women and 1 in 63 for men.

In 2006, there were 2087 deaths from pancreatic cancer.

The causes of pancreatic cancer are not known, but factors that put some people at higher risk are:

  • smoking;
  • age (it occurs mostly in people over the age of 65);
  • diabetes: pancreatic cancer occurs more often in people who have diabetes;
  • a family history of pancreatic, ovarian or colon cancer;
  • chronic pancreatitis; and
  • gastrectomy.

Prostate cancer

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men in Australia after non-melanoma skin cancer.(1) It is more common in older men, with 85% of cases diagnosed in men over 65 years.

More than 17,400 cases of prostate cancer (nearly 30% of male cancers) are diagnosed each year in Australia. The risk of being diagnosed by age of 85 is 1 in 5.

In 2006, there were 2971 deaths from prostate cancer.

There is no population screening test for prostate cancer proven to lower the death rate. The prostate specific antigen (PSA) blood test can detect the disease early, however elevated PSA levels do not necessarily mean cancer is present. The test also misses some cancers.

The risk of prostate cancer rises with age, increasing rapidly over 50 years. Family history increases the chances of developing the disease. There has been some association with a diet high in fats and low in fresh fruit and vegetables. Men of African descent are at higher risk than men of European descent, and there is an association with high testosterone levels.

Stomach cancer

  • Stomach cancer is a common cancer in Australia, however the number of people diagnosed has been falling. It is rare in people under 50 years of age and affects more men than women.
  • There are more than 1900 new cases of stomach cancer diagnosed each year in Australia. Stomach cancer affects nearly twice as many men as women. The risk of being diagnosed by age 85 is 1 in 55 for men and 1 in 136 for women.
  • In 2006, there were 1128 deaths from stomach cancer.
  • The causes of stomach cancer are not known, but factors that put some people at higher risk are:
  • smoking;
  • age over 50;
  • being male - stomach cancers are more common in men than in women;
  • infection with the bacteria Helicobacter pylori;
  • a diet high in smoked, pickled and salted foods and low in fresh fruit and vegetables;
  • a family history of stomach cancer;
  • partial gastrectomy for ulcer disease (after about 20 years);
  • inheriting a genetic change that causes the bowel disorders familial adenomatous; and
  • polyposis or hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer.

Testicular cancer

Testicular cancer is the second most common cancer in young men (aged 18 to 39).

The most common type is seminoma, which usually occurs in men aged between 25 and 50 years. The other main type is non-seminoma, which is more common in younger men, usually in their 20s.

There are more than 600 men diagnosed with testicular cancer each year in Australia. The risk of being diagnosed by age 85 is 1 in 226. The number of men diagnosed with testicular cancer has grown by more than 30% over the past decade, however the reason for this is not known.

Most testicular cancers are successfully treated. In 2006, there were 26 deaths from testicular cancer.

There is no routine screening test for testicular cancer. There is also little evidence to suggest that testicular self-examination detects cancer earlier or improves outcomes.

The causes of testicular cancer are unknown, however factors that may increase a man’s risk are:

  • undescended testicle (when an infant); and
  • family history (having a father or brother who has had testicular cancer).

There is no known link between testicular cancer and injury to the testicles, sporting strains, hot baths or wearing tight clothes.

Source: 1. Cancer Council Australia (2011). Cancer Types. Available online at http://www.cancer.org.au/aboutcancer/cancertypes.htm