The Cancer Council Australia’s 2017 guidelines recommend the ages and frequency that people with an average risk of bowel cancer should be screened.
These guidelines are likely to be endorsed by the National Health and Medical Research Council.
When should I be screened?
Age: If you’re at normal risk, the Cancer Council recommends screening between age 50 and 74.
Screening method: Testing faeces using the faecal occult blood test.
Testing frequency: The guidelines recommend screening every two years, although Bowel Cancer Australia, who produces a screening test, recommends testing every 1 to 2 years for people with no extra risk factors. If you’re over 74 and have been screened before ask your GP if you should continue.
In 2017, people aged 50, 54, 55, 58, 60, 64, 68, 70, 72 and 74 can get free bowel cancer screening every two years as part of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program. By 2020, the program will have expanded so that people will be sent a kit every 2 years from age 50 to 74. If you want to be tested more frequently, or you’re not in this age group, you can see your GP, purchase a BowelScreen kit from your pharmacy or order a screening test online from Bowel Cancer Australia.
How the faecal occult blood test kit works
The test looks for blood in your bowel movement, but not for bowel cancer itself. It can help detect pre-cancerous polyps that can be removed during colonoscopy and can detect cancer in its early stages when it’s easier to treat and cure.
The test involves you placing small samples of water from the toilet (right after a bowel movement) on a special card and mailing them to a pathology laboratory for analysis. The lab then sends the results back to you and your GP.
If the test detects blood, contact your GP immediately to talk about the result and get a referral for a colonoscopy within 30 days.
Blood can be caused by conditions other than cancer, such as non-cancerous polyps, haemorrhoids, or bowel inflammation, but the cause of a positive result needs to be investigated by colonoscopy. In approximately 3% of people, the presence of the blood is due to bowel cancer.
Research shows that regular screening with a faecal occult blood test can reduce the risk of dying from bowel cancer.
Note: False negative and false positive results are possible with the test.
The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program has a list of frequently asked questions.
What if I’m at higher risk?
If you’re at higher than average risk, your GP may recommend different ways of screening.
Slightly increased risk
- One first degree relative (mother, father, brother, sister, son or daughter) who had bowel cancer at age 55 or older)
Recommendation: Faecal occult blood tests every 1 to 2 years and sigmoidoscopy every 5 years from age 50.
Moderately increased risk
- One first degree relative who developed bowel cancer before age 55
- Two first degree relatives who were diagnosed with bowel cancer at any age
- One first and one second degree relative on the same side who had bowel cancer at any age.
Recommendation: A colonoscopy every 5 years from age 50, unless your relatives were diagnosed with bowel cancer at a younger age. If you have moderately increased risk, a colonoscopy is recommended when you’re 10 years younger than your youngest relative’s diagnosis.
- You know that you could have a hereditary bowel cancer syndrome (i.e. it runs in the family).
Recommendation: Seek specialist advice about your specific situation. Your doctor will probably recommend screening with colonoscopy more frequently (e.g. every 1 to 2 years) and from a much younger age.
Talk to your GP if you have concerns about an increased risk of bowel cancer.