Screening for cancer

Screening can detect cancer early before you develop symptoms. Learn why screening is important, what screening programs we have in Australia and how we decide what to screen for.

What is screening?

Screening means testing for a disease when a person doesn’t have any symptoms.

Screening is different to diagnostic testing. Diagnostic testing is used to confirm the disease when a person already has symptoms.

Screening can be population-based or individual:

  • population-based screening is when everyone in a certain group – such as all women over 50 or all newborn babies – is offered screening as part of an organised program
  • individual screening is when your health professional recommends a test at one of your routine appointments – such as a blood test to check cholesterol.

Why cancer screening is important

Some types of cancer can be detected before any symptoms appear. Cancer can take a long time to develop, and screening can find cancer while it is still in its early stages. It can also find changes to cells before they become cancer, or identify infections that may cause cancer in the future.

By finding cancer at an early stage, there is a better chance that treatment will work and the person will survive.

Regular screening is important. This is because no screening test is 100% accurate and your body changes over time.

If you are worried that you might have symptoms of the disease, see your doctor, even if you have recently had a screening test.

If you know you have a higher risk of getting a disease, see your doctor – don’t wait until you are eligible for the population-based screening program.

What cancer screening is available

There are 3 population-based cancer screening programs in Australia:

How we decide what to screen for

Our screening programs are based on the Population-based Screening Framework. This framework helps us decide whether the benefits of screening will outweigh the risks. It is based on principles developed by the World Health Organization.

Under the framework, we consider who will benefit and whether:

  • the condition has a pre-symptomatic stage that can be found by screening
  • there is a suitable test to identify the condition
  • there is a suitable treatment for people who are diagnosed through screening
  • there are facilities available for testing and treatment.

National Cancer Screening Register

We record and report cancer screening results for  both the bowel and cervical screening programs in our National Cancer Screening Register. This helps us remind participants when their next screening test is due.

Other cancer screening

Prostate cancer and skin cancer are important health conditions for Australians, but we do not yet have population-based screening programs for these conditions.

The former Standing Committee on Screening previously provided advice about possible new cancer screening programs in Australia. The committee has written statements to explain these decisions:

Lung cancer screening

The Medical Services Advisory Committee (MSAC) supported an application for a targeted lung cancer screening program for those most at risk, including smokers and former smokers. The Public Summary Document outlining the MSAC appraisal was released on 13 October 2022: MSAC 1699 – National Lung Cancer Screening Program.

Following consideration of the MSAC advice and recommendations, the government is implementing the National Lung Cancer Screening Program to support the early detection of lung cancer through 2-yearly low-dose computed tomography scans for asymptomatic high-risk individuals, to start from July 2025.

Date last updated:

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