A guide to bowel cancer prevention

Common conditions

A guide to bowel cancer prevention

One in 12 Australians will develop bowel cancer. Knowing the signs, and regular screening are key to tackling the disease.

Fit&Well magazine
June 2015

Over 15,000 Australians are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year. It’s more common in men, with the average age of diagnosis being 69. Approximately 4,000 of those diagnosed die from the disease but with awareness, screening and lifestyle changes this figure can be reduced.

“Ninety per cent of bowel cancer cases can be successfully treated if detected early,” states Professor Graham Newstead of Bowel Cancer Australia.

Most bowel cancers develop from polyps, which are little growths in the bowels, but not all polyps turn into cancers. The size of the polyp corresponds to the cancer risk: a polyp smaller than 1 centimetre has less than a 1 per cent chance of being a cancer, but a polyp greater than 2 centimetre carries a 40 per cent cancer risk.

Self screening

The Bristol Stool Chart can help you learn about your bowel health. It’s a medical classification system of seven types of stools and the conditions they may represent.

Unfortunately, many people only act after they notice significant change in their bowel habits, stool consistency or colour, or see blood on toilet paper or in the bowl. By this stage, however, Prof Newstead says it’s sometimes too late, which is why regular screening every one to two years from age 50 is vital.

Screening can be conducted at home using a faecal immunochemical test (FIT), which can be obtained from your doctor or pharmacy. The government currently sends out free FIT kits to people aged 50, 55, 60, 65, 70 and 74. Sadly, only 33 per cent of the tests are returned. “It’s because of the ‘ick factor’,” says Prof Newstead. “Yes, it’s a bit yucky and embarrassing to have to do it, but it’s worse to die unnecessarily of bowel cancer.”

Personal risk

If you have a family history of bowel cancer your risk is double that of someone without a first degree relative who has had bowel cancer. Prof Newstead advises speaking to your doctor and having a colonoscopy as your baseline gauge, then taking the FIT test every one to two years. There are often no outward signs of bowel cancer in the early stages. It can only be detected via testing.

Bowel cancer risk factors

  • being over 50
  • being overweight
  • smoking
  • drinking alcohol
  • having a poor diet
  • being inactive
  • having type 2 diabetes
  • having other bowel conditions such as Crohn’s disease
  • family history of bowel cancer.

For more information visit Bowel Cancer Australia


HCF members on eligible extras cover may be able to claim their bowel cancer tests for the age groups not covered by the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.

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