Q: I've just received my bowel cancer screening test. Why should I do it?
A: Bowel cancer screening is important for early detection. It's a simple and easy way to detect a problem before it becomes worse.
The federal government screening program is offered to everyone between 50 to 75 years old, to undertake a stool test (or poo test) every two years. This test can detect if there is any blood in the stool.
Why the age range? As you get older, the prevalence of bowel cancer increases. 50 is a good age to start. Bowel cancer is uncommon under that age, though we do still see the odd bowel cancer patient under 50.
You can do it in the comfort of your own home, and send it back to the Department of Health. You'll nominate your GP to receive your results. You will be notified of the results directly, and it is recommended that you see your GP to discuss them.
If it comes back positive, or showing blood in your sample, you will be notified to see your GP for a referral to have a colonoscopy for further investigation. About 8 per cent of those who do the poo test come back positive, requiring a colonoscopy.
Of those who go on to have a colonoscopy about 5 per cent are found to have bowel cancer and 15 per cent have significant bowel (or colonic) polyps that get removed at the time of colonoscopy. In the remaining patients we might see haemorrhoids or diverticular disease, or nothing much at all.
Those who are found to have bowel cancer commonly have very early curable bowel cancer and will get referred for further treatment usually surgery.
The advantage of the stool test is that you're picking up very early, curable, bowel cancers. It's important to catch this early. Go and have your poo test even if you don't have any symptoms. The test is specifically meant to be for people who don't have symptoms, to find early curable bowel cancer or polyps that can potentially become cancerous down the track.
You can get more information about the government screening programs for bowel, breast and cervical cancer at cancerscreening.gov.au.
What if I'm under 50?
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, bowel (or colorectal) cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in Australia. When caught and treated early, it has a very high survival rate, at around 90 per cent.
While most cases occur in people over 50, it is still possible to be diagnosed with bowel cancer if you're under 50. It can come down to genetics, but is also affected by your lifestyle. Excessive smoking, drinking and consumption of processed red meat are all habits that put you at risk and are easy to cut down on or cease completely to improve your chances of avoiding bowel cancer. It's also a good idea to consume fresh fruit and vegetables, get regular exercise and maintain a healthy body weight within the recommended BMI ranges.
Regardless of your age, if you have a family history of bowel cancer and are displaying any of the following symptoms you should see your GP for testing: blood in your stools (or on the toilet paper after you have wiped), abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, anaemia, extended bouts of constipation or diarrhoea.
- Today's answer is provided by Adelaide gastroenterologist Dr Ilmars Lidums, through HealthShare, a digital company dedicated to improving the health of regional Australians. Submit questions, and find more answers, at healthshare.com.au.