Bowel Cancer and the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program

Bowel cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer in Australia. Around 80 Australians die each week from the disease. It is one of the most commonly occurring internal cancer and the second most common cause of cancer related death, after lung cancer.

Bowel cancer develops most commonly inside the large bowel. Most bowel cancers develop slowly from tiny growths inside the colon or rectum called polyps, which look like small spots on the bowel lining or like cherries on stalks. Not all polyps become cancerous. If polyps are removed, the risk of bowel cancer is reduced.

Bowel cancer can be treated successfully if detected in its early stages, unfortunately, currently fewer than 40 per cent of bowel cancers are detected early.

The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program offers eligible Australians the opportunity to take part in screening for bowel cancer. People who are eligible to participate will receive an invitation through the mail to complete a simple test called a faecal occult blood test (FOBT) in the privacy of their own home and mail it to a pathology laboratory for analysis. People with a positive FOBT will require further investigation with a colonoscopy. The aim of the program is to detect polyps or cancer early and increased the number of lives saved, hence reducing the burden of bowel cancer on Australians and their families.

Individuals with a family history of bowel cancer maybe at increase risk of developing bowel cancer and so may need to start FOBT earlier or proceed straight to screening with colonoscopy. The exact risk will depend on the number of relatives that have bowel cancer and at what age they were diagnosed.

There is no one bowel cancer screening strategy that suits everyone and individual preferences should be taken into consideration to increase participation in screening. If you are concerned about bowel cancer screening please discuss it with your GP.

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