Cancer survival rates for young people at an all-time high: How Westmead Hospital is supporting adolescents and young adults with cancer

Survival rates for adolescents and young adults (AYA) with cancer are at an all-time high, with 90 per cent of young people diagnosed with cancer alive five years after diagnosis.

According to the latest Australian Institute for Health and Welfare cancer in adolescents and young adults in Australia report, which reviewed national cancer outcomes for people aged 15-24 years, the improvement in survival was most dramatic for blood cancers where five-year survival had increased from 64 per cent in the 1980’s to 91 per cent in the most recent reporting period. 

NSW Health Minister Ryan Park said NSW’s cancer specialists, hospitals and community agencies are committed to supporting young people with cancer and helping them thrive as adults.

“NSW has some of the best cancer survival rates in the world and that simply wouldn’t be possible without the dedication and passion of our state’s health professionals and cancer researchers,” Mr Park said.

“To see so many young people survive cancer is incredibly encouraging, but work continues to achieve our vision of a time when no young person loses their life to this disease, and they can go on to live long productive lives not overshadowed by ongoing side-effects or fear of another cancer diagnosis.”

Professor Tracey O’Brien, NSW Chief Cancer Officer and CEO of Cancer Institute NSW says that while the overall survival increase has been dramatic there is still much to do to improve survival rates and address the long-term impacts experienced by these young people.

“On average in NSW, one adolescent or young adult will be told they have cancer every day.  Hearing this at any age is devastating, but it is tougher when you are also dealing with heightened physical, emotional, social, educational and sexual changes,” Professor O’Brien said.

“Facing cancer treatment while also having to consider the impact their diagnosis and treatment could have on their future health, fertility and careers is challenging and heartbreaking.”

Between 1984 and the current reporting period, rates of colorectal cancer increased almost fourfold (nine to 33 cases per million) and for thyroid cancers almost threefold (13 to 35 cases per million). Survival for these cancers, which rank in the top five most common cancers seen in this age group, was high at 95 per cent and 99 per cent respectively.

While overall survival had improved dramatically, there were certain cancers where survival rates remain lower, such as brain, bone and soft tissue sarcomas.

“Overall, these results are very encouraging and give great hope, but we need to be mindful that people are not statistics, and progress made in treatment of some cancers like bone cancer is less positive, with a third of young people not surviving to five years after their diagnosis,” Professor O’Brien said.

“We will continue to focus on research and innovation to improve outcomes for all young people diagnosed with cancer.”

NSW has a state-wide multidisciplinary youth cancer service with hubs at Prince of Wales Hospital, Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick, Westmead Hospital, The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, John Hunter Hospital, Calvary Mater Hospital, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and Chris O’Brien Lifehouse.

Over the last five years, the NSW Government through the Cancer Institute NSW has invested $4 million in AYA cancer research and $5 million annually into Cancer Clinical Trials.