Why test for bowel cancer?
Regular bowel screening is important because bowel cancer can develop without noticeable symptoms.
The risk of developing bowel cancer is greater if you:
- are aged 50 years and over – your risk increases with age
- have had an inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
- have previously had special types of polyps, called adenomas, in the bowel
- have a significant family history of bowel cancer or polyps.
What is the screening test?
Screening for bowel cancer involves a simple, at-home test called a faecal occult blood test (FOBT). This test looks for traces of blood in the poo which are invisible to the human eye and could be a sign of bowel cancer.
How does the test work?
To complete the test, you need to take tiny samples from two bowel motions using a test kit. These are analysed at a pathology laboratory, which checks the samples for blood. The process is quick, simple and hygienic.
The envelope contains everything you need to complete the test in your home - instructions, a flushable toilet liner, collection tube and stick, a sanitary zip lock bag and reply-paid envelope.
There are four simple steps to follow:
Step 1 – prepare
- Complete the Participant Details Form.
- Write your details on one of the collection tubes.
- Leave the test kit in the bathroom so its easy to remember to do the test.
Step 2 – collect
- Put the flushable paper toilet liner in the toilet bowl.
- Poo onto the paper.
- Open the tube and scrape the tip of the stick into the poo to get a tiny sample. Smaller than a grain of rice is OK.
- Put the stick back into the collection tube and click the lid shut. Shake the tube up and down.
Step 3 – Store and repeat
- Place the tube into the ziplock bag and store the sample in the fridge. This is completely hygienic, the sample is airtight.
- Repeat steps 1-3 with the second collection tube when you next do a poo.
Step 4 – Send
- Put the participant details form and the two collection tubes (in the sealed zip lock bag) into the reply-paid envelope. Post the envelope, within 24 hours if you can.
Your samples will be sent to the laboratory and your results will be mailed to you in around two weeks. If blood is detected, your doctor is likely to refer you for a colonoscopy. Most positive tests are not the result of cancer. However, if cancer is detected early, there is higher chance of it being treated successfully.
Who is eligible?
The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program has expanded to introduce a two-yearly screening interval.
All eligible people between 50 and 74 years of age will be sent free bowel screening kits in the mail every two years. For more information, visit the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program website.
What if I have symptoms?
Regardless of age, if you experience any symptoms such as change in bowel habits, blood in your poo, abdominal pain or unexplained fatigue or weight loss you should speak to your doctor. They can advise you about other screening kits available to the general public.
What if I have a family history of bowel cancer?
You are considered to have a significant family history of bowel cancer if:
- A close relative (parent, brother, sister or child) developed bowel cancer at a young age (under 55 years); or
- More than one close relative in your family has had bowel cancer at any age.
More than 75 per cent of people who develop bowel cancer do not have a family history of bowel cancer. If you think you have a family history of bowel cancer, you should talk to your doctor about your risk of getting the disease.
What does the test cost?
For people aged 50-74, you will receive a free test kit in the mail every two years. The pack you receive also includes a postage paid return envelope.
When will I receive the test?
If you haven't yet done a bowel screening test, you will be invited to screen when you turn 50, 52, 54 and so on – every 2 years until you turn 74. When you turn 74, you will receive your final test kit from the program. Your invitation will be sent to the address listed on your Medicare card.
You should receive an invitation around the time of your birthday, but it may be up to 6 months after. If you live in hotter areas of Australia, you will receive an invitation during the cooler months of the year.
If you don’t do the test you will be invited again around your birthday 2 years later. If you do the test and get a negative result you will be invited again 2 years from the date of your test result.
I threw out my test kit, can I get a new one?
If you’ve lost or thrown away your test kit, you can easily order a replacement kit. Put your replacement kit in the bathroom to help remind you to do it.
To order a replacement kit, contact the National Cancer Screening Register on 1800 627 701 or you can order online.
What do my test results mean?
The test sent out through the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program is a faecal occult blood test (FOBT), it can detect minimal amounts of blood in your bowel motions.
The test involves taking samples from two bowel motions using a test kit. These are then analysed at a pathology laboratory.
If your FOBT results are positive, this means blood has been detected in your sample. About one in 14 people will have a positive FOBT result. If yours is positive, this may not mean that you have bowel cancer – but you do require more tests.
Bleeding may be caused by a number of conditions, including polyps, haemorrhoids or inflammation, and may not necessarily be cancer related. However, the bleeding needs to be investigated and if blood is detected, you should contact your doctor to discuss the results and what further tests will be required.
A negative test result means that no blood has been detected in the samples provided. This does not mean that you do not have or won't develop bowel cancer in the future. If you have a negative result you should test again in two years.
Remember, if you have any concerns or questions, please speak to your doctor.