Q: Does a bowel scan kit actually find cancer?

DON'T DISMISS IT: Using a free bowel cancer kit can lead to early diagnosis which is critical to survival. Photo: Shutterstock
DON'T DISMISS IT: Using a free bowel cancer kit can lead to early diagnosis which is critical to survival. Photo: Shutterstock

About 17,000 Australians get bowel cancer every year, and the majority of people are over 50 years old.

It is the second most common cause of cancer related death in Australia after lung cancer.

If we can pick it up at an early stage then 9 out of ten cases can be successfully treated.

To help people catch any early sign of bowel cancer the Australian Government has developed the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program for people aged 50 to 74, who receive a bowel cancer kit by mail within the first six months of their 50th birthday.

The test is called an immunochemical faecal occult blood test.

What it's aiming to do is look in the person's faeces or poo and detect microscopic amounts of blood that you can't see with your eye.

We use this as a measure because your poo can pass polyps or bowel cancer and cause bleeding.

If the test can pick up those microscopic amounts of blood, then it may be a sign that you may have a polyp or a bowel cancer.

The vast majority of people who have a positive poo test don't have bowel cancer and don't have a polyp, but around one in 29 of those who have a positive bowel cancer test kit result do actually turn out to have cancer.

If someone receives a positive test result, they are invited to have a special procedure called a colonoscopy where bowel cancer can be identified and polyps can be removed which also prevents future bowel cancer.

Currently, it has been shown to be quite successful.

It's been shown that if you're invited to screen for bowel cancer, then you have a 13 per cent less chance of dying from bowel cancer than people who are not invited.

Unfortunately, only about 40 per cent of the people who are invited do actually participate, which is really quite low.

If we could get participation up to 60 per cent, then 83,000 lives can be saved.

The screening program is free to all eligible people between 50 and 74 years and is offered very two years (50, 52, 54, 56, 58, 60, 62, 64, 66, 68, 70, 72, and 74 years of age).

Know the signs of bowel cancer 

Bowel cancer is often asymptomatic initially, especially when it's early and as bowel cancers become larger, that's when you start getting symptoms such as bleeding from the back passage, anaemia (which can cause tiredness), and very rarely, a bowel obstruction (which causes severe abdominal pain and nausea).

But once it gets too large and you start having symptoms, sometimes it can then be at an incurable stage.

If we can pick it up really early, even before people have symptoms, then we can prevent people dying from bowel cancer, or in some cases even from developing bowel cancer.

If people experience these symptoms, or changes in their bowel habits, or are found to be low in iron, or they have a strong family history of bowel cancer, then they should definitely see their GP to discuss it with them and potentially be referred to a surgeon or a gastroenterologist to have further investigation.

Bowel cancer is a serious problem in Australia. It's more common than we think it is, and it's important to pick up before people get symptoms.

The best way to do that is through the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program at bowelcancer.org.au.

All Australians over 50 years old are urged to take part when invited.

This story Don't dismiss screening first appeared on The Canberra Times.