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Bowel cancer screening

2-minute read

Bowel cancer screening is a test for people who don't have any signs or symptoms of a disease. The aim is to find any disease in its early stages. This is different to having tests to diagnose a problem that worries you or your doctor.

Why is bowel cancer screening important?

In Australia, about 80 people die each week from bowel cancer, which is also called colon cancer. This number could be reduced if people had regular screening tests.

What is a faecal occult blood test?

A faecal occult blood test, or FOBT, is a bowel cancer screening test in which you collect samples of your stool (poo) to be tested for tiny amounts of blood.

There is a national screening program. It will send you a free test kit for you to use in the privacy of your own home. The kit has instructions and a reply-paid envelope is included to return your samples in. Results are sent to you and your doctor.

When is bowel cancer screening recommended?

The national screening program will send you a FOBT kit when you turn 50 and again at certain other ages. The aim is to screen all Australians aged 50–74 every two years by 2020.

If you have symptoms such as blood in your stool or feeling as if you still need to go after you have finished a bowel motion or a recent and persistent change in bowel habit (for example looser bowel motions or severe constipation), don't wait for your kit - see your doctor.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners recommend that a faecal occult blood test is used for bowel cancer screening in preference to a colonoscopy in people who are not at high risk. For more information, see your doctor or visit the Choosing Wisely Australia website.

For more information on when you will receive a screening kit, visit the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.

What happens if my FOBT results are positive?

It is not uncommon to have a positive FOBT test. Only about 1 person in 29 who has a positive FOBT will have bowel cancer. A positive test can also be caused by polyps, inflammation or haemorrhoids.

If your FOBT is positive, you should contact your doctor, who may recommend further tests, such as a colonoscopy. This test allows a doctor to look at the inside of your large bowel using a camera in a flexible tube. If the doctor finds something, they can take samples for further testing.

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Last reviewed: May 2018

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