It's worryingly common for bowel cancer to develop without symptoms, but while bowel cancer is the second largest cancer killer in Australia, 90 per cent of cases can be cured if found early enough.
Early detection saves lives
The most effective way to find bowel cancer early is through screening. Screening can help find signs of bowel cancer before any noticeable symptoms occur and when your chance of survival is more than nine in 10.
So what does it involve? Cancer Council recommends doing a simple, at-home test called a faecal occult blood test (or FOBT), every two years from the age of 50. Doing the test means taking a tiny sample from two different bowel motions (poos) and mailing them in the (very hygienic and watertight!) collection tubes to a pathology lab for analysis. Don't let the creepy sounding use of ‘occult blood' in this situation scare you; the ‘occult' here simply refers to hidden traces of blood in the bowel motion which are invisible to the human eye, but could be a sign of bowel cancer.
If traces of blood are found, the test is positive and a colonoscopy is usually the next step to identify the cause of the bleeding. In most cases the reason will be benign (albeit uncomfortable in the case of haemorrhoids) but for a small proportion, it will be due to bowel cancer or pre-cancerous growths. If your test is negative it means no blood has been found and you are advised to re-screen in two years.
Considering screening is highly effective AND can be done in the comfort of your own home, why does bowel cancer still take the lives of over 70 Australians every week? Well it seems not enough people are getting the message about early detection or they don't realise it applies to them. The fact is, if you are 50 or over you are at increased risk of bowel cancer, regardless of your family history or lifestyle, and you should speak to your GP about screening.
Where to get a test?
Here is Australia, we have the beginnings of a national bowel cancer screening program. Eventually all Australians 50 and over will receive a free FOBT every two years, mailed directly to their homes, but for now kits are offered at five year intervals to those aged 50, 55, 60 and 65.
If you are over 50 but are not currently (or about to turn) one of these ages, screening is still very important and you can obtain an FOBT elsewhere. Speak to your GP or alternatively, order an FOBT online at www.cancervic.org.au/boweltest or by calling Cancer Council on 13 11 20. FOBTs are $32.50. Some pharmacies also sell FOBTs and a rebate may be available through some health care funds.
Reducing the risk
As alluded to earlier, some people have a higher risk of bowel cancer than others. This may be because they have a strong family history of the disease (two or more close relatives who have been diagnosed, particularly if it was before the age of 50), or they lead a lifestyle that increases their chance, i.e. eating too much processed meat, not exercising, having too much alcohol. The good news is there are steps you can take to reduce your risk. That's why Victorians of all ages are encouraged to calculate their personal risk of bowel cancer with Cancer Council Victoria's simple online bowel cancer risk calculator: www.cancervic.org.au/mybowelrisk. Developed in partnership with the Royal Melbourne Hospital, the calculator analyses the family history, age, weight, and lifestyle of participants, and offers recommendations about screening and suggested lifestyle changes to reduce the risk. Upon completion of the calculator, results can be printed out and discussed with a doctor.
The bottom line
An FOBT remains the most effective way to protect yourself against bowel cancer, and is a must every two years for men and women 50 and over. Visit Cancer Council Victoria's bowel cancer screening pages for more information or to order an FOBT.
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