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5 things you might not know about bowel cancer screening

A smiling hat-wearing senior couple sitting close together in the shade on the wall at Southbank

If you have received a free bowel cancer screening test in the mail, spending a little quality time with your ‘No. 2s’ could be one of the best things you could do for your health.

Each year in Australia, bowel cancer takes the lives of over 5,000 people, making it the second biggest cancer killer after lung cancer. This number is too high, given that most bowel cancers can be successfully treated if found early.

The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program sends out free bowel cancer screening tests to people between the ages of 50 to 74 to help reduce the number of people being impacted by bowel cancer.

If you’re about to turn 50 and aren’t sure what to expect – or if you’ve received a screening kit before and never gone through with the process – here are five things to know.

1. The free test is sent directly to eligible people

The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP) invites people aged between 50 and 74 years to screen every two years by sending kits to eligible people with a Medicare card and a postal address. The bowel screening test costs you nothing and it comes with a pre-paid envelope for mailing your test samples to the pathology lab.

Your first National Bowel Cancer Screening Kit will be mailed to you within six months of your 50th birthday, using the address recorded with Medicare. It’s important to keep your postal address up to date, so that the test arrives in time.

2. Testing can help find bowel cancer early, before you notice any symptoms

Most bowel cancers begin as small fleshy growths that form in the wall or lining of the colon, known as polyps. Most polyps will be benign (non-cancerous), but some can slowly grow into a cancer over a period of years and, if left untreated, they can spread to other areas of the body.

The slow development of bowel cancer means that it can grow without causing noticeable physical symptoms. Your bowel cancer screening tests looks for very small amounts of blood or “hidden blood” in your poo. If blood is found in one or more of the test samples, this usually means that a follow up test, such as a colonoscopy, is needed to check the bowel for any changes.

Some bowel cancers can even be prevented, if pre-cancerous polyps (called adenomas) are found and removed before they have time to become a cancer.

Bowel cancer screening is for people who do not have symptoms. If you have, or develop symptoms at any time, please speak to your healthcare provider.

3. The test can be done in the comfort of your own loo

The bowel cancer screening test involves collecting two tiny samples of poo from two separate bowel motions, in the privacy of your own home.

The test comes with step-by-step instructions, and a free helpline (1800 930 998) is available to call if you need additional assistance.

Your samples are then sent to a pathology laboratory for testing, and the results will be mailed back to you and your nominated healthcare provider.

You collect tiny amounts of poo by scraping the collection stick over the surface of your poo, then sealing it into the tube provided. Once completed, post the sample tubes using the pre-paid envelope.

If you’d like to know more about what to expect, check out our video.

4. What about the test results?

You will receive your test results a few weeks after mailing off your samples.

A “negative” test result means that blood was not found in the samples provided and you will be sent another screening test in two years’ time (up until the age of 74).

Even if your test result is negative, you should see your GP immediately if you develop any bowel symptoms or notice any changes in between tests.

A “positive” test result means that blood was found in one or more of your test samples. There are a number of possible reasons why blood was found in your poo, and it does not necessarily mean that you have bowel cancer. It is important to speak to your GP as soon as possible, to discuss the test result and the need for further testing.

5. The screening tests have an expiry date

Doing a bowel screening test is something positive you can do for your health and to bring peace of mind.

Tests can be lost or forgotten if left too long, so it is recommended to the do the test as soon as possible once it arrives, don’t put it off.

Each screening test has a shelf life and an expiry date that can be found on the back of the test kit.

If your test has expired, or it has been misplaced or thrown away, you can request a free replacement test online or by phoning 1800 627 701.

When it arrives, do your kit as soon as you can reasonably manage it. It is much quicker and cleaner than you might imagine. To avoid forgetting, set yourself a reminder in your phone or calendar and place the test kit near the toilet.

Screening is your best protection against bowel cancer, it could save your life.

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Last updated: 9 June 2023