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Six things you might not know about bowel cancer screening

A group of mature aged friends stand in a circle with their arms around each other, looking down and smiling.
When you receive the Bowel Cancer Screening Kit, we ask that you "Make No. 2 your No. 1 priority".

No one likes to get up close and personal with their poo, but if you’re aged 50-74, spending a little quality time with your “No. 2” every couple of years could be lifesaving.

One in every 23 Australians will develop bowel cancer in their lifetime, with the odds increasing dramatically after you turn 50. Bowel cancer kills over 4,000 Australians every year, making it the second biggest cancer killer after lung cancer.

But bowel cancer can be treated successfully if detected early, and the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program is in place to catch as many cases as possible in the early stages. The best news? Bowel cancer screening is quick and easy to do, and you can do it in the comfort of your own home.

Queensland Health is currently encouraging all Queenslanders aged between 50 and 74 to make their "No. 2s" a priority. 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 the six things you need to know.

The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program is free

The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program is a federal government initiative that aims to invite around four million Australians to screen for bowel cancer each year by 2020. The tests that show up in your mail-box, the postage to send your kit to the laboratory, and the actual testing that follows are free to all eligible Australians with a Medicare card and a postal address.

Testing can detect bowel cancer before you feel any symptoms

Bowel cancer begins with a growth developing in the wall or lining of the colon, forming clumps known as polyps or adenoma. Most will be benign (non-cancerous), but can become malignant (cancerous) over a period of years and, if left untreated, 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 National Bowel Cancer Screening Kit is a “Faecal Occult Blood Test”, which means it can detect tiny amounts of blood that leak into your bowel movement after growths have formed but before physical symptoms begin.

You’ll get your kit in the mail after you turn 50

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. You will then continue to receive test kits, regardless of whether or not you received your last one, according to the screening program schedule.

Your kit will contain:

  • instructions
  • two flushable collection sheets
  • two sampling sticks
  • 2 sterile collection tubes
  • two identification stickers
  • two transportation tubes
  • a zip-lock bag
  • a pre-paid envelop
  • and a checklist to use when returning your samples.

If you are eligible and you have not received your kit within six months of your birthday, call the Bowel Cancer Screening Program Information Line on 1800 118 868.

You take the test by yourself, in the comfort of your own loo

You collect the samples for the test in the privacy of your own home over two days, using the kit and the instructions provided. Your samples are then mailed to a pathology laboratory for testing, and the results will be mailed back to you. The process is quick and sanitary – at no point do you actually come into contact with your poo.

If you’d like to know what to expect, your part of the testing is clearly explained in this video.

You don’t have to eat, or not eat, anything in particular before your test, and you can take all your normal medications. Simply take your sample from a normal bowel movement, following the provided instructions.

Most tests are going to come back negative

You will receive your test results two weeks after mailing off your samples, informing you whether there the results are positive or negative. Most results will be negative. That said, a positive result isn’t a cause for alarm. It simply means that blood has been found in your sample, and that you should consult with your doctor to discuss the results and undergo further testing.

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

It’s best if you take it sooner rather than later

You might be squeamish about the process, but it’s better to take the test soon once you’ve received the kit, with the two samples taken from two bowel movements. Like most things medical, the process is much easier than you think it’s going to be, so make a date with your date, get it done, then rest easy for the next couple of years.

Last updated: 6 November 2019