Bowel cancer is Australia’s second most common cause of cancer death, but reassuringly most cases can be cured if detected early. Australians aged 50 to 74 years can access a free bowel cancer screening test every two years. However, only about one quarter of eligible people take up the testing.
Bowel cancer develops when cells in the bowel grow too rapidly, forming a clump known as a polyp. Polyps are usually harmless, but most bowel cancers develop from these tiny lumps after several years of growth. Bowel cancer can develop with minimal warning symptoms. When symptoms are present, they include rectal bleeding, a recent and persistent change in bowel habit, unexplained tiredness, or abdominal pain. If you have symptoms you should see your doctor.
Screening seeks to identify bowel cancer in people who don’t have symptoms, aiming to find cancers early when they are easier to treat and cure. Bowel cancer can grow on the bowel wall for several years before spreading to other parts of the body. Often, microscopic amounts of blood leak from these growths and pass into the stool before any symptoms develop. Bowel cancer screening involves patients collecting a stool sample and then uses the Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) to detect invisible traces of blood. The screening test cannot diagnose bowel cancer, but the results will indicate whether a further test (usually a colonoscopy) is needed to rule out bowel cancer.
If you’re aged 50 to 74 years you should receive your screening invitation and free test kit in the post around the time of your birthday. Once you have collected your stool sample, send them to the pathology laboratory in the reply-paid envelope provided.
So, if you have symptoms, see your doctor. If you’re not and you’re aged 50 to 74 years, don’t be embarrassed, test your poo – it could save your life!
This article was written by Dr. Tom Mildenhall and was published in the Western Suburbs Weekly in June, 2017.