Toilet habits usually fall under the umbrella of ‘things you should keep to yourself’, but keeping shtum when you’ve noticed changes to your bowel movements could quite literally be the difference between life and death. Bowel cancer is the second most common cancer in Australia but the majority of us are too embarrassed to talk about it, meaning the disease is often spotted too late.
While it’s perfectly normal to feel self-conscious about discussing such private matters, your bathroom habits are something you need to take notice of as you age, as the risk of bowel cancer increases past the age of 50 and changes in your stools shouldn’t be ignored.
Megan Varlow from Cancer Council Australia is now on a mission to break the ‘gross’ stigma associated with bowel cancer and is urging more over-50s to complete a faecal occult blood test (FOBT) – a simple test that looks for the early signs of bowel cancer. These free, non-invasive tests are sent in the post to those who are eligible – all Australians aged between 50 and 74 – as part of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.
Even if you’re reluctant or embarrassed to talk about your bowel motions if something isn’t right, the longer you put off the test, your risk of developing bowel cancer increases, she warns.
“It’s really important for people to not feel embarrassed or worried, but to just take the test as a way to reduce their bowel cancer risk,” she says. “We are really encouraging people to participate in the screening program when they receive the test kit in the mail. And the reason for that is screening saves lives.”
The evidence on bowel cancer screening is pretty clear: people who take part in the program get diagnosed earlier and if the disease is detected early around 90 per cent of cases can be cured.
Screening is also particularly important as majority of people with colorectal cancer, as it’s also known, experience no symptoms in the early stages of the disease. (However, if you do experience symptoms of abdominal pain or bloating, rectal bleeding, a persistent change in your bowel movements, unexplained weight loss, fatigue and symptoms of anaemia, don’t hesitate to contact your GP.)
“We know that bowel cancer often doesn’t show early warning signs, but if it is detected early around 90 per cent of cases can be cured,” she explains. “So the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program is designed to detect precancerous lesions.”
It’s strongly advised that people aged between 50 and 74 have a screening every two years as the risk increases with age, Varlow explains. In fact, about one in 21 men and one in 31 women will develop bowel cancer before the age of 75.
However, Varlow says if more people participated in the program, an additional 83,000 bowel cancer deaths could be prevented between now and 2040. Currently, only 39 per cent of Australians who receive the free and potentially life-saving test use it.
“So it’s really appropriate for everybody to participate in the screening program when you’re between the ages of 50 to 74, and increasing your participation in the program reduces your risk of bowel cancer.”
Other risk factors that increase your chance of developing the disease include, having a diet high in red meat (particularly processed meats such as bacon, ham and salami), being overweight or obese, a previous history of bowel cancer, a strong family history of bowel disease and inflammatory bowel disease.
The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program aims to reduce death from bowel cancer by mailing free bowel cancer screening tests to all Australians aged between 50 and 74. Complete with everything a person needs to successfully obtain their stool sample, the kit allows scientists to detect traces of blood in the stool which can be a sign of the disease.
Varlow says you need to collect two tiny samples from two separate bowel motions – one sample from each poo, ideally a day apart but you want to do both within three days of each other. Then it’s as simple as filling in the participant form and sending the sample back in the postage-paid envelope.
“Actually doing the test is not difficult at all,” she says. “Once you’ve done the test you realise how simple it is and it’s just a couple of minutes to really help to save your life.”
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