By health reporter Olivia Willis, ABC Health & Wellbeing
Bowel cancer kills conversation, but it doesn’t have to kill you. That’s the message behind a new campaign urging Australians aged 50-74 to use their government-funded, home-delivered bowel cancer screening kit as soon as they receive it in the mail.
Currently, only 39 per cent of Australians who receive the free and potentially life-saving test use it.
Data released yesterday by the Cancer Institute of New South Wales found 40 per cent of people surveyed who had received a kit, but not used it, said the main reason was because they “didn’t have time”.
Christopher Horn, Bowel Cancer Screening Manager at Cancer Institute NSW, said doing the test was important because when it comes to bowel cancer treatment, early detection is “critical”.
“Bowel cancer is Australia’s second biggest cancer killer. It can be treated in up to 90 per cent of cases, but we need to catch it early,” Mr Horn said.
Early detection is key
More than 4,000 Australians die from bowel cancer each year, and more than 17,000 new cases are expected to be diagnosed in 2018. Bowel cancer can be treated successfully if detected in its early stages, but it often develops without warning signs. Currently, fewer than 40 per cent of bowel cancers are detected early.
Bowel cancer begins when cells in the bowel lining grow too quickly. These growths are often benign, but over time, some growths become cancerous. If left untreated, cancers can develop and then spread to other parts of the body.
Screening is a way of testing for the disease when no obvious symptoms are present. The aim is to find cancers early when they are easier to treat and cure. Both men and women are at risk of developing bowel cancer, however the risk increases if you:
- are aged 50 years and over (your risk increases with age)
- have had an inflammatory bowel disease (such as Crohn disease or ulcerative colitis)
- have previously had special types of polyps, called adenomas, in the bowel
- have a significant family history of bowel cancer or polyps
Research has shown screening for bowel cancer using the at-home kits can reduce deaths from the disease by 15 to 25 per cent. “People who have been diagnosed through a screening kit are twice as likely to be early stage, when [the cancer] is still localised, giving themselves the best chance of treatment success,” Mr Horn said.
What the test involves
Under the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (established in 2006), the Federal Government provides free, at-home bowel cancer screening kits to Australians aged between 50 and 74 years old.
“These kits arrive in the mail around the time of a person’s birthday, every two years,” Mr Horn said.
The kits enable you to carry out what’s called a ‘Faecal Occult Blood Test’. This detects tiny traces of blood in the poo (invisible to the naked eye) that may be a sign of cancer, or polyps (tiny lumps which may develop into cancer over time).
“When a person goes to the toilet, they’ll need to do a poo, poke it with the stick that’s in the kit, seal it up, put it in the reply paid-envelope, and then send it back to the lab to be tested,” Mr Horn said.
You need to collect two samples, ideally on two consecutive days (YouTube: National Bowel Cancer Screening Program: How to do the test).
“The samples are processed, and the results are sent to the patient and to their doctor or health service,” Mr Horn said. The sample, which is analysed in a pathology laboratory, cannot diagnose bowel cancer, but the results — which will be mailed to you within two weeks — will indicate whether further testing is needed.
If the test comes back positive
If your bowel screening test result is positive, you will need to discuss the result with your doctor, who may recommend further testing to identify the cause of the bleeding.
“Typically, the next step would be a colonoscopy,” Mr Horn said. It’s important to remember that a positive result may be due to conditions other than cancer, such as polyps, haemorrhoids or inflammation of the bowel.
“If somebody gets a positive test result, it does not necessarily mean that they have cancer. It means that they have something that needs to be investigated further,” Mr Horn said.
Beyond early detection
If you develop any symptoms of bowel cancer (such as changes in bowel habits, blood in the stool or abdominal discomfort), or discover a family history of the disease, you should speak with your GP about the type of testing that is most suitable for you.
There are a number of ways to help reduce the risk of developing bowel cancer, including:
- having a healthy diet
- giving up smoking
- drinking alcohol in moderation
- exercising regularly