Australia's first free bowel cancer screening program is now operating. Bowel cancer is the most common internal cancer in Australia and kills about 90 people each week.
Bowel cancer is a malignant tumour that develops on the lining of the large bowel (colon) or rectum. Most develop from tiny growths called adenomas (polyps). The risk increases from the age of 40 years, rising sharply from 50.
What is 'screening'?
Testing for cancer in healthy patients, before symptoms develop, is called screening. Polyps or bowel cancers often release small amounts of blood into the bowel motion which can be detected with a simple chemical test called a 'faecal occult blood test' (FOBT).
Testing is usually performed in the privacy of your home. Using a special brush or probe, you simply transfer a small sample of bowel motion to the test kit on two separate occasions. Then post the kit to the laboratory for analysis.
In a recent Australian pilot study, 1 in 10 people had a positive test result (blood in the stool sample). Of these, 1 in 5 were found to have an advanced polyp or bowel cancer on further testing.
What if I have symptoms?
Symptoms often appear only when the disease is more advanced. They include:
- Bleeding from the bowel
- A change in bowel habit
- Unexplained weight loss or tiredness
- Abdominal pain
If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor immediately. A colonoscopy is usually advised: under sedation, a narrow tube with a tiny camera attached is inserted into the bottom to examine the inside of the large bowel.
The national screening program
Australians turning 55 or 65 years of age between 1 May 2006 and 30 June 2008 and those previously involved in the pilot program will be invited to participate in the free bowel cancer screening program. Eligible patients will be mailed a FOBT test kit to use at home.
If your test is positive, your GP will arrange further investigation, usually a colonoscopy during which polyps can be removed. If a cancer is found it will usually require surgery.
What if I don't qualify?
Screening for bowel cancer is recommended by the National Health and Medical Research Council for all Australians over 50. If you do not qualify for the free screening program you can still be tested. Your doctor can arrange this.
Please note this information was correct at time of printing.
For up to date information, speak to your doctor.