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How a bowel cancer test can save your life

The rates of bowel cancer in the young are on the rise

A young man hunching over on the couch, holding his abdomen
A young man hunching over on the couch, holding his abdomen

There’s no escaping the stats: bowel cancer causes the second-highest number of cancer deaths in Australia, killing 103 people every week.

Bowel cancer more commonly affects older people, but the rates of bowel cancer in the young are on the rise.

The good news is that more than 90% of bowel cancers can be successfully treated if the cancer is detected early.

Symptoms of bowel cancer

Some people show no symptoms of bowel cancer while it’s in the early stages and so may be less likely to get an early cancer diagnosis and treatment that could prolong their life.

It’s important to make regular testing part of your routine from the age of 50, whether you have symptoms or not.

Regardless of your age, see your doctor if you notice any of the following symptoms persisting for more than two weeks.

Symptoms of bowel cancer include:

  • Blood in your stools (poo)

  • A persistent change in bowel habit (e.g. constipation, diarrhoea or the feeling of not quite emptying your bowel)

  • A change in the appearance of your poo

  • Loss of appetite

  • Abdominal pain, bloating or cramping

  • Anal or rectal pain

  • A lump in the anus or rectum

  • Sudden weight loss

  • Unexplained tiredness

A female doctor chatting with a young man

What's the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program?

The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP) is a free bowel cancer test the Australian Government post out to Australians aged 50-74 every two years.
The test is only for low-risk people with no symptoms and who have no family history of bowel cancer. Click here to check your eligibility.

Anyone with a family history of bowel cancer may need to get a colonoscopy at an earlier age. “If a first-degree family member (parent, sibling, etc.) has had bowel cancer, it is recommended that you have a colonoscopy 10 years before you reach the age that your relative was when diagnosed with bowel cancer,” says Dr Graham Newstead, the Director of Bowel Cancer Australia.

“For example, if your mother was diagnosed when she was 54, you should have a colonoscopy when you are 44 to establish a baseline of your bowel health and bowel cancer risk.”

Related: Bowel cancer: How to avoid Australia’s silent killer

What happens in a bowel cancer test?

The bowel cancer screening test (also known as an immunochemical faecal occult blood test, or iFOBT) is a simple test you can do at home. Its purpose is to look for blood in your poo.

To do the test, you collect small samples (in a small plastic container provided) from several bowel motions and send them in a reply-paid envelope to be tested. Once the samples have been tested, the results will be sent to you and your doctor within two weeks.

The tests are not without risks. It’s possible to have a false-positive or a false-negative result (where no blood is detected in the poo even though it’s actually there).

How can I get a bowel cancer test?

If you are ineligible for a free FOBT bowel cancer test under the national screening program, your GP can order one for you. They are also available in pharmacies, online or by calling 1800 555 494.

If you have any specific concerns, discuss them with your GP who may advise you to take a blood test or book in for a colonoscopy.

‘I was sleeping 15 hours a day and lost my appetite’

Marty Holt was a fit 42-year-old, wrapping up a round-the-world trip to celebrate his wife Jane’s birthday, when he started feeling uncommonly tired.

“When we got to the last leg of the trip, we were cruising through the Panama Canal, when I started feeling exhausted. I was sleeping 15 hours a day and lost my appetite, though I’d always been a big eater.”

Marty with his wife and daughter

When they returned to Australia, Marty decided to see a doctor if he wasn’t feeling better in a few days. “But Jane had already booked me in,” says Marty.

Marty’s GP did a series of blood tests and sent him for an ultrasound after he developed stomach pain and his lack of appetite became a concern.

“Two days later, the GP was looking at the test results and said, ‘You’re a very sick man. You need to go to the emergency room right now,’" Marty says.

“The thing was, I didn’t feel sick, I just felt fatigued. But in the hospital they said it looked like I had cancer in the bowel and it had spread to the liver.”

Weeks after his first symptoms, Marty was diagnosed with metastatic (stage 4) bowel cancer.

“I thought it was a mistake, that doesn’t happen to me. I’m 42. I didn’t want to tell people because I wanted my daughter to have a nice Christmas. But by the 21st of December I was having my first chemo treatment.”

Marty says that before his diagnosis, he had been resistant to the idea of getting a colonoscopy. “Now my opinion has really changed. I never wanted to be the poster boy for anything, but if I can get two or three people to get a colonoscopy, that’s a good thing.”

Despite Marty’s young age, doctors estimated that if he hadn’t been tested and treated when he was, he would have died within eight weeks.

As it is, he was able to increase his life expectancy to two years.
“To anyone out there, if there’s a change in your body, you need to get it looked at. Please get it looked at,” says Marty. “It’s worth a day at the doctor.”

Has it been a while since your last check-up?

It might be time to book an appointment with a GP. Our Find a Provider service allows you to search for health professionals like GPs in your local area.

If you’re heading to your GP for a check-up, it could be a good opportunity to find out what other examinations you might be due for.