Bowel cancer screening
- Bowel cancer screening tests can detect bowel cancer early, before you have symptoms.
- Bowel cancer can be cured if it’s found early.
- A faecal occult blood test, or FOBT, is a type of bowel cancer screening test.
- If you are in Australia and aged between 50 and 74 years, the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program will send you a free test kit.
Why is bowel cancer screening important?
A bowel cancer screening test can show early signs of bowel cancer. It can show up signs of cancer even before you have symptoms. Screening tests are different from other tests done when there are signs of sickness. Screening can find a cancer at an early stage. Bowel cancer can be cured if it’s found early.
Bowel cancer can grow inside your bowel for many years. There are often no signs until the cancer gets bigger. In Australia, about 100 people die each week from bowel cancer. This number could be much smaller if people had screening tests to find cancer early.
What is a faecal occult blood test?
A faecal occult blood test, or FOBT, is a type of bowel cancer screening test. You need to collect samples of your stool (poo). These samples are tested and can show up tiny amounts of blood.
If you are in Australia and aged between 50 and 74 years, the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program will send a free test kit to your home.
The kit has all the instructions you need. It also has a reply-paid envelope so you can send back your poo samples. Your test results are sent to you and your doctor. You can do the test in private at home.
You will be sent a test kit every 2 years.
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners recommends that FOBTs should be used to screen for bowel cancer in people who are not at high risk of bowel cancer. A colonoscopy may be used for people at high risk of bowel cancer. For more information, see your doctor or visit Choosing Wisely Australia.
Frequently asked questions
What if I already have blood in my poo?
If you have already have symptoms, such as blood in your stool (poo), you should see your doctor. You should not wait for your test kit.
You should also see your doctor if there are changes to your bowel habits. These can be:
- a feeling like you have not finished on the toilet or that you still need to do more
- looser bowel motions or severe constipation (not being able to poo)
If you have any of these signs, don't wait for your kit. See your doctor.
You should also see your doctor if you have a family history of bowel cancer.
How do I do the test?
There are instructions in the home test kit. Everything you need to do the test is in the kit. You need to test 2 bowel motions (poo). This can be on the same day.
When you do the test, put a paper sheet (from the kit) into the toilet to collect your poo. You then use the stick from the kit to get a bit of poo from the paper. You put the stick in a tube. You can then flush the rest of your poo and the paper away.
After you have collected 2 samples, you post the tubes to the lab for testing.
How much poo do I need to collect?
You only need to collect a little bit of poo for testing. It needs to be the size of a grain of rice.
Does it matter what I eat?
You can eat normally before and after the test. You can also take any medicines as usual.
What if my poos are hard or soft?
The stool (poo) is collected on a paper sheet that you put into the toilet. Both hard and soft stools will be caught on the paper. It does not matter which type of stool you have.
Why do I need to collect 2 samples?
Collecting 2 samples makes the test more accurate. It increases the chance of finding blood in your poo. Blood in the poo can be a sign of bowel cancer.
The samples need to be taken from 2 different bowel motions (different toilet visits). It’s best if they are done as close in time to each other as possible.
How and when will I receive the test results?
Your results are posted to you after a few weeks.
What happens if my test is positive?
A positive test can be caused by many things that are not bowel cancer. Sometimes a positive FOBT can be caused by polyps or haemorrhoids. These are not cancer.
If your FOBT is positive, you should see your doctor. The doctor may ask you to do more tests. One of these tests is called a ‘colonoscopy’. This test lets a doctor look at the inside of your large bowel using a camera in a flexible tube. The doctor can take samples of your bowel to do more tests.
Resources and support
For more information on when you will receive a screening kit, visit the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.
If you want to know more about bowel cancer screening, talk to your doctor or call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak to, 24 hours, 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: September 2022