Screening cuts bowel cancer death risk by almost half, study finds

Sep 23, 2019
Each year around 17,000 Australians are diagnosed with the disease and around 93 per cent of these people are aged over 50. Source: Getty

Bowel cancer is one of Australia’s most common cancers. In fact, each year around 17,000 Australians are diagnosed with the disease and around 93 per cent of those are aged over 50.

But it’s not all bad news as death from bowel cancer is preventable through early detection, and new research led by the University of South Australia (UniSA) found that bowel cancer screening actually reduces the risk of fatality by up to 45 per cent.

Data from the study of 12,906 bowel cancer patients, published in BMC Cancer, found that faecal occult blood testing (FOBT) with a follow-up colonoscopy plays a key role in catching the disease early, before symptoms appear – this is key as most people with colorectal cancer, as it’s also known, experience no symptoms in the early stages of the disease.

According to Cancer Council Australia, bowel cancer develops from the inner lining of the bowel and is usually preceded by small growths called polyps. The latest Australian stats show 5,375 people died of bowel cancer in 2016 and there were 15,604 new cases of bowel cancer in Australia in 2015.

Researchers from UniSA’s Cancer Epidemiology and Population Health found that having one pre-diagnostic colonoscopy was associated with a 17 per cent reduction in the number of deaths, two pre-diagnostic colonoscopy procedures was associated with a 27 per reduction and 45 per cent for three or more.

Meanwhile, the study revealed that 37 per cent of the 12,906 patients analysed had pre-diagnostic colonoscopies and were more likely to live longer than those who were diagnosed after experiencing bowel cancer symptoms.

Ming Li, one of the study leaders, said those patients who had pre-diagnostic colonoscopies showed a “significant increase” in survival. “The risk of colorectal cancer death reduces step-wise with increasing numbers of colonoscopy examinations before symptoms appear, cutting the mortality rate from 17 per cent to 45 per cent,” she said.

“Our findings show the value of the National Bowel Screening Program which is now being rolled out to everyone in Australia over the age of 50 on a two-yearly basis. It involves doing a simple, non-invasive faecal occult blood test (FOBT) which, if positive, is followed up with a colonoscopy.”

Every two years, the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program mails free bowel cancer screening tests to all Australians aged between 50 and 74. Once a kit is received, it’s as simple as a person going to the bathroom in their own home. 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 bowel cancer.

However, the problem is that only 39 per cent of Australians actually do the test, which is a real waste because the test is easy to use and helps to detect potentially deadly cancer before you even have any symptoms – when the chances of successful treatment are as high as 90 percent.

Meanwhile, the study comes a few months after the Australian Federal Government pledged $10 million to the Cancer Council Australia to help tackle bowel cancer, as thousands of Australians continue to ignore the free bowel cancer kit sent to their homes.

The investment from the government will help fund a national mass media campaign to encourage more Australians to screen for bowel cancer with a simple home test that can save lives.

“It is estimated that over 17,000 Australians were diagnosed with bowel cancer last year – and over 4,000 died as a result,” Cancer Council Australia CEO Sanchia Aranda said. “Yet, currently only around four in 10 eligible Australians complete the home bowel cancer screening test when it arrives in the mail. Cancer Council research has shown that if this figure was increased to just six in 10, around 84,000 lives could be saved in the next 20 years.”

What are your thoughts on this study? Have you taken this screening test before? Do you know someone with bowel cancer?

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