Why have I been invited to screen for bowel cancer?

The Australian Government introduced the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program as a national initiative to reduce the number of deaths from bowel cancer in Australia. Eligible people are sent a bowel screening kit (a Faecal Occult Blood Test, FOBT) by mail and asked to take samples from two separate bowel motions before sending the completed test back to the laboratory for analysis. There is no cost involved in completing the test.

Page last updated: 19 January 2016

Frequently Asked Questions

No. Participation in the program is voluntary – it is your choice. If you do not complete the bowel screening kit, one reminder letter will be sent to you. If you choose not to participate, you should dispose of your screening kit in your rubbish bin and opt off the program by ringing the Program Information Line on 1800 118 868. Please do not return your unused kit or give it to another person. At the moment the free screening test is only available for those people who have been invited to take part in the program. If you know someone who wants to have a test for bowel cancer, or is concerned about their health, you should advise them to contact their doctor.

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Opting off the program?

If you choose not to take part in the program, you can opt off. Please do not return your unused test kit or give it to another person. By choosing to opt off of the program, you will not receive any reminder letters and you will not be invited to screen in the future, unless you notify the program that you now want to be involved. You can opt off of the program by ringing the Program Information Line on 1800 118 868. If you opt off by telephone, a confirmation letter will be sent to you.

If you have opted off of the program but then decide to participate by doing the bowel screening kit sent to you, you will be considered a participant in the program. This means that your test results will be recorded on the Program Register and reminder letters will be sent to you, if necessary.

Suspending from the program

If you are unable to participate in the program now, but would like to in the near future, you can suspend your participation for up to one year. Or, you can choose to have a test kit sent to you when you are next eligible to participate in the program. You can do this by ringing the Program Information Line on 1800 118 868. If you suspend over the telephone, a confirmation letter will be sent to you.

If you decide in the future you want to become involved in the program, call the Program Information Line. The Program Information Line will be able to tell you about your eligibility to participate and when you may expect to receive a test kit.

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Both men and women are at risk of developing bowel cancer.

The risk is greater if you:

  • are aged 50 years and over – your risk increases with age;
  • have had an inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn disease or ulcerative colitis;
  • have previously had special types of polyps, called adenomas, in the bowel; or
  • have a significant family history of bowel cancer or polyps.

Anyone, including younger people, with concerns about their risk of developing bowel cancer should talk to their doctor.

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If you:

  • have had a bowel condition in the last 12 months which is currently under treatment; or
  • have had a recent colonoscopy (anytime in the last 5 years); or
  • are scheduled for a colonoscopy in the next few weeks;

then you may wish to discuss your participation in the screening program with your doctor. Please advise the Program Information Line (1800 118 868) if your doctor recommends that you do not need to participate in the program.

If you have had bowel surgery, you should discuss with your doctor your need to screen. Screening checks the health of your colon. If you have a functioning colon you should continue with bowel screening. People with no functioning colon do not need to be screened.

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Screening involves testing for bowel cancer in people who do not have any obvious symptoms of the disease. The aim is to find polyps or cancer early when they are easier to treat and cure. Bowel cancer can develop without any early warning signs. The cancer can grow on the inside wall of the bowel for several years before spreading to other parts of the body. Often very small amounts of blood leak from these growths and pass into the bowel motion before any symptoms are noticed.

A test called a Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) can detect small amounts of blood in your bowel motion. Although no screening test is 100 per cent accurate, the FOBT is at present the most reliable screening test for bowel cancer. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommend screening with an FOBT every two years from the age of 50 years. If you develop any of the symptoms of bowel cancer or discover a family history of bowel cancer you should contact your doctor as soon as possible to talk about the type of testing that is most suitable for you.

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The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program is currently inviting Australians turning 50, 55, 60, 64, 65, 70, 72 or 74 years of age to take part. It is currently expanding to introduce a two-yearly screening interval, consistent with the recommendations of the National Health and Medical Research Council. When fully implemented by 2020, all Australians aged between 50 and 74 years of age will be offered free screening every two years.

The names and addresses of people eligible to take part in the program are drawn from Medicare or Department of Veterans' Affairs records. Most people receive their invitation around the time of their birthday, but it may be up to six months after their birthday. People living in hotter areas of Australia will receive their invitation during the cooler months of the year.

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Screening involves testing for bowel cancer in people who do not have any obvious symptoms of the disease. The aim is to find polyps or cancer early when they are easier to treat and cure. Bowel cancer can develop without any early warning signs. The cancer can grow on the inside wall of the bowel for several years before spreading to other parts of the body. Often very small amounts of blood leak from these growths and pass into the bowel motion before any symptoms are noticed.

A test called a Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) can detect small amounts of blood in your bowel motion. Although no screening test is 100 per cent accurate, the FOBT is at present the most reliable screening test for bowel cancer. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommend screening with an FOBT every two years from the age of 50 years. If you develop any of the symptoms of bowel cancer or discover a family history of bowel cancer you should contact your doctor as soon as possible to talk about the type of testing that is most suitable for you.

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The bowel screening test is a simple test that you do at home before sending samples to a pathology laboratory for analysis. The test is quick, easy and painless. To increase the chances of detecting tiny amounts of blood in your bowel motion, you will need to take samples from two separate bowel motions. Ideally, samples should be collected as close together as possible and preferably no more than 2-3 days apart.

The accuracy of the results can be affected by temperature and by the time from sampling to analysis. Taking the samples as close together as you can, storing them correctly and returning them quickly for analysis will ensure that your result is as accurate as possible. If it takes longer than 14 days from when you take the first sample to when your samples reach the pathology laboratory, you will be sent another kit to complete. The bowel screening kit includes an instruction sheet, and you should read this carefully before doing the sampling.

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Bowel cancer is a malignant growth that develops most commonly inside the large bowel. Most bowel cancers develop from tiny growths called polyps. Polyps look like small spots on the bowel lining or like cherries on stalks. Not all polyps become cancerous. If polyps are removed, your risk of bowel cancer is reduced.

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Both men and women are at risk of developing bowel cancer.

The risk is greater if you:

  • are aged 50 years and over – your risk increases with age;
  • have had an inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn disease or ulcerative colitis;
  • have previously had special types of polyps, called adenomas, in the bowel; or
  • have a significant family history of bowel cancer or polyps.

Anyone, including younger people, with concerns about their risk of developing bowel cancer should talk to their doctor.

Read more information like this | Close FAQ
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You can be assured that your personal information and test results kept on the Program Register are protected by the Privacy Act 1988 and your personal details will be handled in accordance with the Information Privacy Principles set out within that Act.

Who will my information be provided to?

Personal information kept on the Program Register may be disclosed to health professionals who provide services under the program, such as your nominated doctor, medical specialists, the pathology laboratory responsible for analysing your bowel screening test, employees and contracted service providers of state and territory health departments, the Australian Government Department of Health, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and any authorised third party you have nominated.

What if my personal details are incorrect or change?

If your personal details change or are listed incorrectly please call the Program Information Line on 1800 118 868.

Read related FAQ's

The Program Register is administered by the Department of Human Services. It keeps personal information such as your:

  • name;
  • contact details;
  • age;
  • gender;
  • Medicare number
  • results of your screening test and the results of any further tests you may have such as colonoscopy and histopathology results; and
  • the name of your nominated doctor and other health professionals who provide screening services to you.

To invite you to take part in the program your name has been drawn from either the Medicare or Department of Veterans’ Affairs enrolment records.

What will this information be used for?

Your personal details will be used to:

  • remind you to complete your bowel screening kit;
  • assist you to receive appropriate follow up and access to health services in accordance with clinical guidelines;
  • send reminder letters and/or make telephone calls (where necessary) to you and your nominated doctor;
  • contact medical service providers to request relevant reports be submitted to the Program Register;
  • check Medicare and Department of Veterans’ Affairs claims for bowel examinations if required; and
  • and monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the program and its impact on the incidence of bowel cancer.
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The results will be sent to you, your doctor (if you have nominated one) and also to the Program Register about two weeks after you post your completed test to the laboratory. You are encouraged to nominate your doctor on the form. It is not compulsory to nominate a doctor or health service. If you don’t have a regular doctor, but attend a clinic or service (such as an Aboriginal Medical Service) for health care, then you can nominate that service. The pathology laboratory will send your test results to you and your doctor/health service (if nominated)

If you opt off the Program after you have completed a test and sent it for analysis, the results of the test will still be sent to you and your doctor (if nominated). If you have a positive test result, you will need to discuss the result with your doctor/health service.

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The bowel screening test shows whether or not blood was found in your samples. If no blood is found in the samples you send to the laboratory, your test result is negative. However, this does not mean that you do not have or can never develop bowel cancer, as some bowel cancers do not bleed or only bleed on and off. The National Health and Medical Research Council recommends that you have an bowel screening test every two years from the age of 50 years.

If you develop any symptoms of bowel cancer after receiving a negative result, see your doctor immediately. If blood is present in the samples you send to the laboratory, your test result is positive. About one in 13 people will have a positive result, indicating the presence of blood. This may be due to conditions other than cancer, such as polyps, haemorrhoids or inflammation of the bowel, but the cause of the bleeding needs to be investigated. If blood is detected, you will be asked to contact your doctor to discuss the result.

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The Program Register is administered by the Department of Human Services. It keeps personal information such as your:

  • name;
  • contact details;
  • age;
  • gender;
  • Medicare number
  • results of your screening test and the results of any further tests you may have such as colonoscopy and histopathology results; and
  • the name of your nominated doctor and other health professionals who provide screening services to you.

To invite you to take part in the program your name has been drawn from either the Medicare or Department of Veterans’ Affairs enrolment records.

What will this information be used for?

Your personal details will be used to:

  • remind you to complete your bowel screening kit;
  • assist you to receive appropriate follow up and access to health services in accordance with clinical guidelines;
  • send reminder letters and/or make telephone calls (where necessary) to you and your nominated doctor;
  • contact medical service providers to request relevant reports be submitted to the Program Register;
  • check Medicare and Department of Veterans’ Affairs claims for bowel examinations if required; and
  • and monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the program and its impact on the incidence of bowel cancer.

Read related FAQ's

The results will be sent to you, your doctor (if you have nominated one) and also to the Program Register about two weeks after you post your completed test to the laboratory. You are encouraged to nominate your doctor on the form. It is not compulsory to nominate a doctor or health service. If you don’t have a regular doctor, but attend a clinic or service (such as an Aboriginal Medical Service) for health care, then you can nominate that service. The pathology laboratory will send your test results to you and your doctor/health service (if nominated)

If you opt off the Program after you have completed a test and sent it for analysis, the results of the test will still be sent to you and your doctor (if nominated). If you have a positive test result, you will need to discuss the result with your doctor/health service.

Read more information like this | Close FAQ

The bowel screening test shows whether or not blood was found in your samples. If no blood is found in the samples you send to the laboratory, your test result is negative. However, this does not mean that you do not have or can never develop bowel cancer, as some bowel cancers do not bleed or only bleed on and off. The National Health and Medical Research Council recommends that you have an bowel screening test every two years from the age of 50 years.

If you develop any symptoms of bowel cancer after receiving a negative result, see your doctor immediately. If blood is present in the samples you send to the laboratory, your test result is positive. About one in 13 people will have a positive result, indicating the presence of blood. This may be due to conditions other than cancer, such as polyps, haemorrhoids or inflammation of the bowel, but the cause of the bleeding needs to be investigated. If blood is detected, you will be asked to contact your doctor to discuss the result.

See more information like this | Close FAQ

You can be assured that your personal information and test results kept on the Program Register are protected by the Privacy Act 1988 and your personal details will be handled in accordance with the Information Privacy Principles set out within that Act.

Who will my information be provided to?

Personal information kept on the Program Register may be disclosed to health professionals who provide services under the program, such as your nominated doctor, medical specialists, the pathology laboratory responsible for analysing your bowel screening test, employees and contracted service providers of state and territory health departments, the Australian Government Department of Health, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and any authorised third party you have nominated.

What if my personal details are incorrect or change?

If your personal details change or are listed incorrectly please call the Program Information Line on 1800 118 868.

Read more information like this | Close FAQ
Close FAQ

Opting off the program?

If you choose not to take part in the program, you can opt off. Please do not return your unused test kit or give it to another person. By choosing to opt off of the program, you will not receive any reminder letters and you will not be invited to screen in the future, unless you notify the program that you now want to be involved. You can opt off of the program by ringing the Program Information Line on 1800 118 868. If you opt off by telephone, a confirmation letter will be sent to you.

If you have opted off of the program but then decide to participate by doing the bowel screening kit sent to you, you will be considered a participant in the program. This means that your test results will be recorded on the Program Register and reminder letters will be sent to you, if necessary.

Suspending from the program

If you are unable to participate in the program now, but would like to in the near future, you can suspend your participation for up to one year. Or, you can choose to have a test kit sent to you when you are next eligible to participate in the program. You can do this by ringing the Program Information Line on 1800 118 868. If you suspend over the telephone, a confirmation letter will be sent to you.

If you decide in the future you want to become involved in the program, call the Program Information Line. The Program Information Line will be able to tell you about your eligibility to participate and when you may expect to receive a test kit.

Read related FAQ's

Both men and women are at risk of developing bowel cancer.

The risk is greater if you:

  • are aged 50 years and over – your risk increases with age;
  • have had an inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn disease or ulcerative colitis;
  • have previously had special types of polyps, called adenomas, in the bowel; or
  • have a significant family history of bowel cancer or polyps.

Anyone, including younger people, with concerns about their risk of developing bowel cancer should talk to their doctor.

Read more information like this | Close FAQ

If you:

  • have had a bowel condition in the last 12 months which is currently under treatment; or
  • have had a recent colonoscopy (anytime in the last 5 years); or
  • are scheduled for a colonoscopy in the next few weeks;

then you may wish to discuss your participation in the screening program with your doctor. Please advise the Program Information Line (1800 118 868) if your doctor recommends that you do not need to participate in the program.

If you have had bowel surgery, you should discuss with your doctor your need to screen. Screening checks the health of your colon. If you have a functioning colon you should continue with bowel screening. People with no functioning colon do not need to be screened.

See more information like this | Close FAQ

Yes. Samples cannot be collected if:

  • it is during or within three days either side of a menstrual period.
  • you have haemorroids (piles) that are bleeding
  • blood is present in the urine or visible in the toilet bowl - if this is the case contact your doctor.
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