Why you shouldn’t ignore this important piece of mail

Soon you’ll start receiving free bowel cancer screening kits in the mail once you turn 50. Using it might just save your life.

After years of being subjected to mammograms and internal examinations, it’s a rare person who hasn’t sighed: “Why can’t they just invent a simple test for cancer that comes in a box?”

While such technology has yet to cover most illnesses, testing for early signs of bowel cancer – Australia’s second deadliest cancer – has become much easier.

And that’s thanks to a simple postage paid kit made available free of charge to Australians aged 50 to 74.

One in 13 Australians will be diagnosed with bowel cancer in their lifetime – but if detected early, almost 90 per cent of cases can be treated successfully.

What is bowel cancer?

Your colon and rectum together are known as the large bowel, and bowel cancer (also known as colorectal cancer, or perhaps just referred to as colon or rectal cancer depending on where it’s found) can affect any part of this area.

Most bowel cancers begin as benign polyps on the wall or lining of the bowel, but some can become malignant.

If left undetected, these malignant polyps can develop into a cancerous tumour and quickly spread to other organs in advanced cases.

According to a recent study in the Lancet, there’s reason to be concerned – although data shows both colon and rectal cancer decreased in older Australians aged 50 to 74, it has increased significantly in those younger than 50.

Colon cancer is up by 2.9 per cent, while rectal cancer jumped to 2.6 per cent.

Clearly, it’s never been more important to know the symptoms of bowel cancer and have them investigated it they persist for longer than two weeks.

Common symptoms of bowel cancer

Bowel cancer symptoms will vary between people, and it’s worth noting that during the early stages, patients may not present with any symptoms at all (hence the importance of screening).

That said, it’s important to keep an eye out for the following signs – each of them common to this type of cancer:

  • Blood in the stool or rectal bleeding.
  • A recent change in bowel habits, such as regular diarrhoea or constipation.
  • Abdominal pain and/or swelling.
  • Pain and/or lumps in the anus or rectum .
  • A change in the appearance of bowel movements (colour, size etc).
  • Unexplained anaemia.
  • A feeling that the bowel is still full even after a bowel movement.

What is the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program test?

Traditionally, the first line of defence in the fight against suspected bowel cancer has been to get a referral from your GP to undergo a colonoscopy.

But by next year, Australians aged 50 to 74 will receive a free screening test in the mail every two years under the taxpayer-funded National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.

People outside that age group can order one online at Bowel Screen Australia for $39.95 per kit.

Screening (in the comfort of your own home) involves placing small samples of stool or toilet water on a card provided as part of the Faecal Immunochemical Test, placing it in a postage paid envelope and mailing it to a pathology laboratory for analysis.

Results are then sent back to you and your GP.

If the test comes back positive for blood in your samples, you should contact your GP immediately for further investigation.

A negative result means blood has not been detected in your samples and it’s recommended you repeat a bowel cancer screening test in two years.

If between tests, you develop any of the above signs of bowel cancer, you should see your GP.

Treatment for bowel cancer can include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or a combination of these.

Written by Dilvin Yasa.