Just 38 per cent of eligible people in New South Wales return their bowel cancer test kits each year, a worrying statistic given that bowel cancer kills more people in NSW than breast cancer, prostate cancer or melanoma, and is Australia’s second most-deadly cancer overall. No doubt the statistics are similar in other states.
It’s particularly concerning that older Australians aren’t using the free and, easy test kits, because being 50 or older is the biggest single risk factor when it comes to bowel cancer.
Christopher Horn, the Cancer Institute NSW’s bowel cancer screening program manager, says the test is quick and far easier than many people might think. The test isn’t invasive, and there is no need to touch any poo.
“Bowel cancer can develop without symptoms,” Horn explains. “If people want to pick it up in the earliest stage, when they have the highest chance of treatment success – roughly 90 per cent – then the best way is by doing the screening test when it arrives in the mail.”
So, how does the test work?
Every two years, the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program mails free bowel cancer screening tests to all Australians aged between 50 and 74.
Once you have the test kit, it’s as simple as going to the bathroom in your own home. And while the test does involve getting a stool sample, there is no touching the poo itself with your hands. Each kit comes with a flushable toilet liner which you place in the toilet before doing a poo.
The kit also includes a collection tube, and the lid comes with an attached stick you use to scrape the top of the poo, before putting the lid back on the tube. It doesn’t require a big piece to be collected, just a sample about the size of a grain of rice.
Although tiny, the samples help the laboratory detect traces of blood in your poo that can be a sign of bowel cancer or pre-cancerous growths. That blood won’t necessarily be visible to you, though, which is why doing the test is key.
“Bowel cancer can develop slowly over a long period, so it’s really important that we look for that microscopic blood,” Horn explains.
You collect two tiny samples from two separate poos – one sample from each poo, ideally a day apart but you want to do both within three days of each other. Store the first sample in the provided zip-lock bag in the fridge, until the second sample is complete.
Then it’s as simple as filling in the participant form and sending the sample back in the postage-paid envelope.
In about two weeks’ time, after the samples have been tested in a laboratory, you’ll receive your results. A negative result means no blood was found in your samples and you’re done and dusted until the next test is sent out in two years.
In the meantime, though, it’s always important to talk to your GP if you notice any symptoms – blood in your stools, or blood in the toilet bowl or on your toilet paper, changes in your bowel habits such as persistent diarrhoea or constipation, ongoing abdominal pain, bloating or discomfort, pain from your bum or anaemia.
If your test is positive, it means blood has been found in your samples. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer, but it is important to discuss the results with your doctor. From here, the doctor may order more tests (usually a colonoscopy) to find out what is causing the bleeding.
The aim of the free bowel screening test is very simple – to save lives. It’s hoped that by 2020, early detection from tests will save 500 people by picking up bowel cancer in patients who don’t have any symptoms.
“People are often aware that there are some other risk factors around lifestyle, including diet, smoking, alcohol consumption and weight, but in fact the biggest risk factor is age,” Mr Horn says.
“We see 90 per cent of bowel cancer cases in people who are over the age of 50. Bowel cancer is also the second biggest cause of cancer deaths amongst Australians, so it really is important to do the test when it arrives in the mail.”
You can find more information about the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program at dothetest.com.au, including videos to show you how to do your own test.
First published May 2018, updated May 2022
IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.