Bowel cancer testing, don’t wait until the warning signs

Bowel cancer testing, don’t wait until the warning signs

The national bowel cancer screening program has been running for many years, inviting all Australians aged 50 to 74 to self-test for Australia’s third-most common cancer. However, there are calls to take a more proactive approach to the disease’s prevention, by lowering the recommended age bracket to allow more people to be tested at an earlier age.

At present only 50% of those contacted for a self-test actually participate. Even when a test is sent to someone at home, they tend not to worry unless they have already experienced the commonly-known symptoms such as blood in the stool or rectal pain. Bowel Cancer Australia warns this can be risky, when symptoms easily dismissed as haemorrhoids, yet some people may not show any symptoms until their cancer is progressed.

The number of Australians diagnosed with bowel or colorectal cancer under the age of 50 is now at 10%. Bowel Cancer Australia says a 45-year-old today now has the same risk of developing the cancer than those over 50 did ten years ago.

Brisbane colorectal surgeon Dr Terence Chua says he has personally observed an increasing number of younger patients that he has treated for bowel cancer in the last couple of years. He recommends taking the test a step further and encourages patients to proactively ask their GPs for a colonoscopy referral to catch any problems while they are still treatable.

“The government BowelScreen test is done using a faecal occult blood test which relies on the presence of blood in a person’s stool – this often indicate a larger polyp or possible cancer. However, a colonoscopy can identify and remove smaller polyps before they have a chance to become malignant,” he says.

“When bowel cancer is diagnosed, the cure rate is high because there are very effective chemotherapy regimes to treat even patients with advanced bowel cancer. For patients who have stage one and two diseases, the cure rate is in excess of 95% to 98%,” says Dr Chua.

“You need to see a doctor if you are experiencing any of the symptoms: bleeding and altered bowel habits, constipation, diarrhoea, feeling of inadequate emptying of the bowels, weight loss, iron deficiency or abdominal pain. If you have a family history of bowel cancer you should be vigilant about it.

“People who are at higher risk, for example, a previous family history of bowel cancer in any of the first or second-degree relatives, people who are smokers, people who have diabetes or are obese, and anyone with symptoms such as rectal bleeding should have a colonoscopy rather than faecal occult blood testing. Colonoscopies are available through the Australian public health system, and the majority of Bronze level private health policies will cover the procedure in a private setting.

“That’s even if they’re below the age of 50. There is a higher incidence of young people with bowel cancer now, and this has been observed across the world, people in their thirties and forties are not spared, basically.”