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The #1 reason to check your #2s

Smiling happy middle-aged black couple

Once you hit the big five-oh, you will likely mark this significant milestone with quite the celebration.

You will also receive a bowel screening pre-invitation letter—usually around the time of your birthday—followed by a free kit in the mail a few weeks later, and then again every two years until you’re 74, as part of the free National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSB).

This is a very good thing. The 2020 NBCSP monitoring report said about 15,500 people of all ages were diagnosed with bowel cancer in Australia every year, and it killed more than 5,000—it's the second biggest cancer killer after lung cancer.

A 2018 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) report said screening for bowel cancer reduced deaths from the disease by between 13 and 28 per cent.

The national bowel screening program is free for men and women aged 50-74 years and can detect bowel cancer before you feel any symptoms.

In Queensland, 484,000 of the more than 1.15 million people invited to screen did so—around 42 per cent. More women (44 per cent) than men (40 per cent) participated.

Not doing the test is a bit like skipping a service on your car­—you may not know that something’s wrong until it’s too late. However, if detected early, it can be successfully treated in nine out of ten cases.

What is bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer develops in the wall or lining of the bowel. It begins when cells grow too quickly, forming a clump known as a polyp or adenoma. Most are benign (non-cancerous), but some can become cancerous. If left untreated, the cancer can spread to other areas of the body.

Who is at risk?

Both men and women are at risk of developing bowel cancer. The risk is greater if you:

  • are over 50 years of age
  • have a family history of bowel cancer or polyps
  • have a personal history of polyps or adenomas (pre-cancerous growths)
  • have a history of inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease or chronic ulcerative colitis

The best way to reduce your risk of bowel cancer is to:

Why test at ages 50 through to 74 years?

Age is the biggest risk factor for bowel cancer.

The test is for both men and women who have no symptoms, and you should do the test even if you think you are completely healthy.

The good news is that, if detected early, up to 90 per cent of cases can be successfully treated.

A hand holding a National Bowel Cancer Screening Program test kit box

Will I have to handle my poo?

While the process may seem icky, people who have completed the test say it’s not as bad as first thought and, nope, you don’t need to handle your poo.

If you follow the instructions included in the kit, the process is quick, easy, and clean.

Here's what happens:

  1. You receive your bowel screening kit in the mail. Inside you will find:
  2. a participant details form
  3. two flushable toilet liners
  4. two labelled collection tubes
  5. a zip-lock bag
  6. a reply-paid envelope and easy-to-follow instructions.
  7. You collect two tiny samples of your poo from two separate poos (as close together as possible—same day or the next day).
  8. You mail the samples (for free).

For detailed instructions and other useful information, see these Queensland Health-developed interactive videos.

Done and dusted. Now you just wait for your samples to go to the lab, get tested, and the results to be mailed to you.

How do I get my results?

Results are sent in the mail within two weeks to:

  • you
  • your GP or health service, if you nominated them on your participant details form
  • My Health Record, unless you ticked the box on your participant details form to tell us you don’t want this to happen or you have opted out of My Health Record
  • the National Cancer Screening Register

Your results will be either positive or negative. Read more about understanding your results.

Is there a situation in which I shouldn't do the test?

Don’t do the test if:

  • you are a woman and have your period, or you finished your period less than 3 days ago
  • you have haemorrhoids (piles) that are bleeding
  • you have recently had a colonoscopy
  • you have blood in your urine, poo, or in the toilet bowl – talk to your GP if this happens.

If you have symptoms, or a family history of bowel cancer, please talk to your GP.

What is the test looking for?

Bowel cancer often develops without any symptoms. The cancer can grow in the bowel for years before spreading to other parts of the body.

Very small amounts of blood can leak from these growths and pass into your faeces (poo). These tiny amounts of blood are not noticeable just by looking.

The bowel screening test is called an immunochemical faecal occult blood test (iFOBT). It can detect these tiny amounts of blood.

If the test finds blood in your poo, it doesn’t always mean you have bowel cancer.

Understanding your test results

If you receive a positive test result, this means that traces of blood were found in your samples. This could be due to conditions other than cancer, and it's important to make an appointment with your doctor to investigate.

If you receive a negative result, this means that no blood was found in your samples. You won't need to do anything else until your next test in two years' time. However, if you develop symptoms in the meantime, talk to your doctor.

Read more about understanding your test results.

Most importantly!

Please do the test when it arrives in the mail. It could save your life.

More information:

Last updated: 16 June 2021