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Get behind bowel cancer screening

01 February 2018

Free screening kits for bowel cancer are being mailed to the homes of older Australians – but not all people are taking advantage of this potentially life-saving initiative.

By 2020, every eligible person aged between 50 and 74 (around 4 million Australians) will have been sent the easy, do-it-yourself test. The roll-out of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program started in 2017.

But as of June 2017, only 2 in every 5 people offered the kit had taken part.

Chief executive of Cancer Council Victoria, Todd Harper, is concerned: "Bowel cancer is one of our most preventable deaths because we have a screening program that is able to detect bowel cancer often before symptoms are felt," he said last year.

Here’s how the kit works: Using a screening test called the Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT), participants collect poo samples of 2 separate bowel motions. Collecting these samples is very easy!

The samples are then sent to a pathology lab where they are analysed to detect any tiny traces of blood, invisible to the naked eye.

The screening test can’t diagnose bowel cancer, but the results will show whether a further test (usually a colonoscopy) is needed to rule out bowel cancer.

If found early, bowel cancer is one of the most curable types of cancer. “If detected at the earliest stage, the 5-year survival rate for bowel cancer is 93%,” says Dr Helen Zorbas of Cancer Australia.

If you’re not eligible for the free screening kit, you can ask your GP or pharmacist about obtaining one for a small cost. If you are eligible, think seriously about participating in the bowel cancer screening program. 

“When you receive your kit in the mail, don’t hide it in the bottom drawer. Instead, make it a priority. Complete the simple test and put it in the post – it could save your life,” urges Dr Zorbas.

Know your risk of bowel cancer 

Both men and women can develop bowel cancer, and the risk increases every year from around 50 years of age. It’s also good to know whether you have any other risk factors. Your chance of having bowel cancer increases if you: 

  • have had an inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
  • have previously had certain types of polyps, called adenomas, in the bowel
  • have had a close relative (parent, brother, sister or child) develop bowel cancer or polyps, or more than one relative on the same side of your family has had bowel cancer or polyps

Know the symptoms of bowel cancer 

Bowel cancer can develop without any obvious symptoms – which is why screening is so important. Symptoms can include:

  • bleeding from the rectum or any sign of blood after going to the toilet
  • a recent and persistent change in your bowel habit (for example, if you experience looser bowel motions, severe constipation or if you need to go to the toilet more often than usual)
  • unexplained tiredness (a symptom of anaemia)
  • unexplained weight loss
  • abdominal pain

If you experience any of these symptoms, it does not mean you have bowel cancer, but you should still see your doctor. If you’d like to know more about the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program, call 1800 118 868 between 8.30am and 5pm, Monday to Friday (except public holidays), or visit Cancerscreening.gov.au.

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