Summary

  • Bowel cancer is the second most common cause of cancer in Australia.
  • Ninety per cent of bowel cancers can be successfully treated if they are found early.
  • For most people, screening for bowel cancer involves a simple, at-home screening test. The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP) offers kits for free to eligible people between the ages of 50 and 74 years.
  • The bowel screening kit detects tiny amounts of blood in bowel movements and so can pick up polyps or early-stage cancer.
  • Regular screening with the kit can reduce the risk of dying of bowel cancer.
     

Bowel cancer is the second most common cause of cancer in Australia, with around 80 people dying from the disease each week. Once you reach 50 years of age, your risk of bowel cancer increases.

Screening for bowel cancer in people who do not have any symptoms and are between 50 and 74 years helps to detect cancer early. Up to 90 per cent of bowel cancers can be successfully treated if they are detected early.

The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP) offers free bowel cancer detection kits to eligible people between the ages of 50 and 74 years. By 2020, all eligible people between 50 and 74 years will be offered free testing every two years.

National Bowel Cancer Screening Program

The NBCSP mails a kit to eligible people after specific birthdays between the ages of 50 and 74 years. Visit the NBCSP website to find information about age eligibility. Between 2015 and 2020, more ages will be added until, by 2020, all eligible people between 50 and 74 years will be sent free test kits every two years. By 2020, around four million Australians will be offered free screening each year and this could save up to 500 lives per year.

The National Health and Medical Research Council recommends screening every one to two years for people older than 50 years who do not have symptoms or a family history of bowel cancer. The screening test offered is called an immunochemical faecal occult blood test (FOBT).

Bowel cancer screening test

Bowel cancer can grow for years in the wall of the bowel before it spreads to other parts of the body. During this time it may not cause any symptoms. 

A growth known as a polyp can turn into bowel cancer. Polyps and early-stage bowel cancer can release tiny amounts of blood that cannot be seen with the human eye. Blood in your bowel movement could be an indication of polyps or bowel cancer, but could also be caused by haemorrhoids or other conditions.

Regular FOBT screening can help detect changes in the bowel that could lead to a diagnosis of bowel cancer. An FOBT can detect tiny amounts of blood in bowel movements and pick up polyps or early-stage cancer. If blood is detected, you and your doctor will both receive the results and it is important to visit your doctor for follow-up, which is likely to be a referral for a colonoscopy.

The test results can take a few days to come back. It is very natural to feel anxious while waiting to get your results. It can help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you are feeling. You can also contact the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20 and speak with a cancer nurse.

Negative result for the bowel cancer screening test

A negative result from the FOBT means that blood was not detected in your bowel movement. This does not mean you will never get bowel cancer or that you definitely do not have cancer. 

If you receive a negative result but notice unusual changes in your bowel habits or bleeding from the bowel, visit your doctor. If you do not have symptoms of bowel cancer, you should continue to take the free bowel screen offer when you receive it.

Positive result for the bowel cancer screening test

A positive result from the FOBT means that blood was detected in your bowel movement. Contact your doctor immediately to discuss the result and obtain a referral for further investigation, which is likely to be a colonoscopy

The presence of blood in your bowel movement may be due to conditions other than cancer, such as polyps, haemorrhoids or inflammation of the bowel. Even so, you will need further investigation to identify the cause of the bleeding. Having a colonoscopy may enable:

  • the cause of the bleeding to be found
  • any polyps to be removed 
  • a diagnosis of bowel cancer to be confirmed (if applicable).

Where to get help

References

More information

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This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by: DHHS - Screening and Cancer Prevention

Last updated: June 2017

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