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Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions about bowel cancer and screening. Simply click on the question to reveal the answer.


If you can’t find what you’re looking for, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

How common is bowel cancer?

  • Bowel cancer is the number two cancer-killer in Australia, after lung cancer.
  • Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world, with over 14,000 diagnosed each year.
  • About 4000 Australians die from the disease each year, more than from breast or prostate cancer.
  • In Victoria alone, over 1300 die annually – more than 3 times the states road toll.
  • Bowel cancer affects men and women of all ages, almost equally.
  • Risk increases with age.
  • 1 in 12 Australians will develop bowel cancer in their lifetime.
  • While 90% of bowel cancers occur in people 50 and over, around 1000 younger Australians are diagnosed each year.

Is bowel cancer preventable?

Yes! Bowel cancer is one of the most preventable and treatable cancers – particularly when caught early. More than 90% of people survive bowel cancer if it’s detected and treated at an early stage. Reducing known lifestyle risk factors and regular bowel screening are vital tools in reducing the risk, and preventing, bowel cancer.

Why should I screen for bowel cancer?

Regular bowel screening is the ONLY way to detect the early signs of bowel cancer – which often has no obvious symptoms. The aim of screening is to find polyps (a precursor for bowel cancer) or to find cancer early when it is easier to treat and cure. National medical guidelines recommend screening for Australians aged 50 and over, every 1 to 2 years. Screening regularly can reduce the risk of dying from bowel cancer by up 33%.

What about the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program?

Currently in Australia the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP) offers free bowel screen tests to Australians who turn 50, 55, 60 and 65 years of age. Men and women who are eligible for the screening program will automatically receive a free test kit in the mail around the time of their birthday.  Let’s beat Bowel Cancer encourages participatation in the program.

For more information about the NBCSP please visit or phone 1800 118 868.

For those who are not eligible to receive a free bowel screening test as part of the NBCSP, Let’s Beat Bowel Cancer encourages regular screening by purchasing a bowel screening test or speaking to your GP.

Who should be screening for bowel cancer?

In accordance with Australian medical guidelines, screening is recommended every 1 to 2 years, for people:

  • aged 50 and over
  • with no symptoms
  • with no personal or family history of bowel cancer or polyps
  • or after a discussion with your GP

If you do experience any symptoms such as a persistent change in bowel habits, blood in the stool (bowel movement), abdominal bloating or cramping abdominal pain (regardless of age), it is very important to consult your GP so the cause can be found and treated.

What is an FOBT screening test?

Faecal Occult Blood Test (or FOBT) is used to detect invisible traces of blood in the bowel motion. The test is simple, accurate and non-invasive, and can be done in privacy at home. Testing involves taking samples from two bowel motions so any problem is more likely to be found. The samples are analysed at a pathology laboratory and results are sent back to the patient and nominated GP within 2 weeks. If blood is detected, further testing may be required.

Is an FOBT effective for helping to detect bowel cancer?

Yes. Clinical research trials have shown that population screening using a faecal occult blood test (FOBT) is effective for reducing deaths from bowel cancer. The purpose of FOBT is for early detection of blood in the bowel motion (or stool) when there are no signs or symptoms of bowel cancer present.

What is the difference between a 'guaiac' and 'immunochemical' FOBT?

There are two different types of FOBT screening tests available in Australia:

Immunochemical tests are recognised as the “gold standard” in bowel screening tests and have no restrictions on diet or medication, or any faecal handling. Two samples from separate bowel motions are required. Current research proves the detection rates for adenomas and cancer are significantly higher with immunochemical testing. The immunochemical FOBT detects 9 out of 10 Stage 1 bowel cancers and is the preferred testing method for the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program and BowelScreen Australia Program.

Guaiac tests are older style tests that require patients to alter their diet and medications before testing, and samples from three separate bowel motions.  Guaiac tests detect 4 out 10 Stage 1 bowel cancers.

What do my bowel screening results mean?

negative FOBT result means that no blood has been detected in the samples provided. This does not mean that you do not have or won’t develop bowel cancer in the future which is why it’s important to repeat the test every 1 to 2 years.

positive FOBT result means blood has been detected in your sample. About one in 14 people will have a positive FOBT result.

Bleeding can be caused by a number of conditions including polyps, haemorrhoids or inflammation, and may not necessarily be related to cancer. However, if blood is detected, further investigation with colonoscopy is needed to find the cause.

Remember, if you have any questions or concerns, please contact your GP.

What are polyps?

Polyps (wart-like growths which grow on the wall of the bowel) are a risk factor for bowel cancer. Although most polyps are benign, the relationship of certain polyps to cancer is well known and some can be cancerous. If polyps are removed, the risk of bowel cancer is significantly reduced.

What are the symptoms of polyps?

Usually nothing.  Most polyps produce no symptoms and are mostly found incidentally. Some polyps can produce bleeding, mucus discharge, alteration in bowel function, or very rarely abdominal pain.

How are polyps diagnosed?

Polyps are diagnosed either by looking directly at the colon lining (colonoscopy) or with special scans or x-rays.

Do polyps need to be treated?

Since there is no foolproof way of predicting whether or not a polyp is, or will, become cancerous, total removal of all polyps is recommended. Most colonoscopy examinations including polyp removal, can be performed on an outpatient basis with minimal discomfort. Large polyps may required more that one treatment for complete removal. Some polyps, because of size and location, cannot be removed by instruments, so your doctor will discuss the option of surgery if required.

Can polyps come back?

Once a polyp is completely removed, it is very unusual for it return. However, if the same factors that caused a polyp to form in the first place are still present, then new polyps will develop in at least 30% of people who have them previously.