Bowel cancer screening

Bowel Cancer Screening ProgramWhen you turn 50, most Australians receive a parcel in the post, a National Bowel Cancer screening program kit. The reason these kits are sent out is that bowel cancer (or colon or colorectal cancer) is the second most common cause of cancer death in Australia, behind only lung cancer. It kills more people than either prostate or breast cancer and Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world.

Many people have no symptoms while they develop bowel cancer. Most patients with bowel cancer are over 50 years old when diagnosed but some people are quite young, especially patients with a strong family history of the disease. The good news is that if detected early, bowel cancer can be successfully treated in more than 90% of cases.

The Australian Government has introduced a free screening program which aims to detect bowel cancer early. The program involves using a small stick to collect a few samples of your poo. Most people find it quick and easy to do, much easier than having a mammogram for breast cancer screening and less invasive than a prostate examination. There are clear instructions in the kit or you can watch a simple video (National Bowel Cancer Screening Program | Australian Government Department of Health) which explains what you need to do to participate. You send in your specimens through the post and then they are analysed to see if there is any microscopic blood.

A negative result indicates that blood was not detected and you don’t need to do anything further until you get your next test kit in 2 years. Obviously if you have any symptoms you are concerned about, you should discuss these with your doctor as you may still need further investigations.

A positive result indicates that there was some blood detected in one or more of your samples. If your test is positive, you need to have a colonoscopy to work out where the blood came from. In most cases, a positive result is due to benign (non cancerous) conditions such as haemorrhoids, diverticular disease or pre-cancerous polyps. Polyps can usually be safely removed during a colonoscopy, preventing bowel cancer from even forming. In around half of patients with a positive test, no problem is detected at all. Only 5% of people with a positive test result will be found to have a cancer. So in a group of 100 people with a positive test, 5 will have cancer and 95 will not!

If cancer is detected, your doctor will discuss your treatment options. Options include surgery which is often able to be done laparoscopically (via keyhole). Some patients also require chemotherapy and other treatments.

Remember, if bowel cancer is detected early, it can be cured in about 90% of cases. The best way for it to be detected early is not to wait for symptoms, but to regularly participate in the National Bowel Cancer screening program. Don’t leave the test kit on the shelf, USE IT. The choice to participate could save your life.

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