Why is screening important?

Screening is a way of testing for a disease when no symptoms are present. Regular screening is important because bowel cancer develops slowly and usually without any early warning signs.

Page last updated: 10 November 2015

Frequently Asked Questions

No screening test is 100 per cent accurate. As with most tests, the sooner the samples can be analysed, the more accurate the result. Taking the samples as close together as you can, storing them correctly and posting them promptly will ensure that the most accurate results are obtained. Blood starts to break down once it leaves the body. The liquid in the collection tube acts as a preservative for blood.

Certain conditions can cause blood to break down at a faster rate and, once the blood breaks down, it is harder to detect in the screening process. This may result in a ‘false negative’. Samples that are exposed to high temperatures for extended periods, or delayed in analysis, may be affected in this way. To reduce the breakdown of any blood in the samples, it is important not to expose them to high temperatures and to complete the test promptly.

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No dietary preparation is required. Do not change your diet or medication before collecting the samples. The only preparation is to read the 'Instructions for sample collection' information sheet. The instructions will be included with the test kit.

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Yes. Samples cannot be collected if:

  • it is during or within three days either side of a menstrual period
  • you have haemorrhoids (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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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. If you have more than one bowel movement in the one day, you can collect both samples on the same day.

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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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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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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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You are considered to have a significant family history of bowel cancer if a close relative (parent, brother, sister or child) developed bowel cancer at a young age (under 50 years) or if more than one relative on the same side of your family has had bowel cancer. More than 75 per cent of people who develop bowel cancer do not have a family history of bowel cancer. If you think you have a family history of bowel cancer, you should talk to your doctor about your risk of getting the disease.

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If your bowel screening test result is positive, you will need to discuss the result with your doctor. Your doctor may recommend a further test, usually a colonoscopy, to find the cause of the bleeding. You should discuss with your doctor any risks associated with such testing.

What does a colonoscopy involve?

A colonoscopy is a procedure to examine the bowel. The usual procedure for a colonoscopy is described below.

The day before:

The day before the colonoscopy you will be asked to drink a special preparation to help empty your bowel. This is very important, because it helps the doctor see the lining of your bowel more clearly and find any changes. You will need to be near a bathroom all day, so you may need to take time off work or plan ahead if you need to travel for your colonoscopy.

The day of the procedure:

On the day of the procedure you may be given a sedative that will make you feel drowsy. The doctor will then insert a narrow flexible tube into the rectum. This tube is called a colonoscope. It has a very small camera attached to it, which lets the doctor look for polyps or cancerous growths in the bowel. The test itself takes about 20 to 30 minutes and is usually carried out in a hospital or day clinic. After the procedure you will remain in the hospital recovery area for about two hours until the effect of the sedation wears off. You may then go home.

You will need to have someone come and pick you up. Because of the sedation, it is very important that you do not drive a car, travel on public transport alone (including in a taxi), operate machinery, sign legal documents or drink alcohol for 24 hours after your test. If any polyps are seen, the doctor will usually remove them immediately and test them for cancer. You may feel some discomfort after the procedure, but this will settle quickly. You should not feel any pain.

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Bowel cancer is one of the most curable types of cancers if found early. If the cancer is detected before it has spread beyond the bowel, the chance of surviving for at least five years after diagnosis is 90 per cent. That is why completing the free screening test sent to you is so important. Early detection offers the best hope of reducing the number of Australians who die each year from 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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You will usually require surgery if a bowel cancer is found during a colonoscopy. If the cancer is found at an early stage, the chance of a full recovery is high. Most people will be able to return to their current lifestyle.

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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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Bowel cancer can develop without any obvious symptoms. This is why it is important to screen.

Symptoms can include:

  • bleeding from the rectum or any sign of blood after a bowel motion
  • a recent and persistent change in your bowel habit, for example if you have looser bowel motions, severe constipation and/or if you need to go to the toilet more often than usual
  • unexplained tiredness (a symptom of anaemia), or weight loss; or
  • abdominal pain.

REMEMBER: If you notice any of these symptoms, it does not mean that you have bowel cancer, but it is very important that you discuss them with your doctor

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Your bowel is part of your food digestive system. It connects your stomach to your anus, where waste materials (called a bowel motion or faeces) are passed out of the body. The function of the bowel is to finish digesting food by absorbing water and nutrients.

Your bowel has three parts:

  • the small bowel – which mainly absorbs nutrients from broken-down food
  • the colon – which mainly absorbs water
  • the rectum – which stores waste material until it is passed from the body through the anus.

The colon and rectum together are known as the large bowel. Bowel cancer usually affects the large bowel. Cancer of the large bowel is also known as colorectal cancer. Cancer of the small bowel is rare.

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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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You will usually require surgery if a bowel cancer is found during a colonoscopy. If the cancer is found at an early stage, the chance of a full recovery is high. Most people will be able to return to their current lifestyle.

Read related FAQ's

Bowel cancer can develop without any obvious symptoms. This is why it is important to screen.

Symptoms can include:

  • bleeding from the rectum or any sign of blood after a bowel motion
  • a recent and persistent change in your bowel habit, for example if you have looser bowel motions, severe constipation and/or if you need to go to the toilet more often than usual
  • unexplained tiredness (a symptom of anaemia), or weight loss; or
  • abdominal pain.

REMEMBER: If you notice any of these symptoms, it does not mean that you have bowel cancer, but it is very important that you discuss them with your doctor

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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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Bowel cancer is one of the most curable types of cancers if found early. If the cancer is detected before it has spread beyond the bowel, the chance of surviving for at least five years after diagnosis is 90 per cent. That is why completing the free screening test sent to you is so important. Early detection offers the best hope of reducing the number of Australians who die each year from bowel cancer.

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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, 65, 70 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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While no cancer is completely preventable, you can lower your risk of bowel cancer by:

  • eating a healthy diet;
  • exercising regularly;
  • reducing your alcohol consumption; and
  • quitting smoking.

It is never too late to make changes to your diet and lifestyle. If you would like more information on a healthy diet, talk to your doctor or visit the Cancer council website.

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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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