Bowel Cancer & Screening

Why is bowel cancer important?

Bowel cancer (or colon or colorectal cancer) is the second most common cause of cancer death in Australia, behind 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.

Most bowel cancer begins as a benign polyp which is likely to cause no symptoms. These polyps can grow and over many years only a few may eventually turn into cancer. Polyps however can be removed from the colon before cancer develops. This prevents cancer even developing.

Bowel cancer screening

The Australian Government has introduced a population screening program that aims to detect bowel cancer early and reduce the number of Australians who die from the disease.

Screening involves testing people who do not have any obvious symptoms. The aim is to find polyps (which are pre-cancerous) or bowel cancer early when they are easier to treat and cure.

The screening test uses a Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT). This involves testing a sample of stool or poo for microscopic amounts of blood, which might indicate polyps or cancer.

People aged 50 – 74 years will be sent a free test kit in the mail every two years.

If the FOBT is positive, a colonoscopy should be done. About 5% of patients will have bowel cancer and so 95% of patients do not. However many of those people will have polyps which can be removed, preventing the development of future bowel cancer.