A simple home test could save your life
Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, is the second biggest cause of cancer death in Australia.
Tragically, bowel cancer claims the lives of 100 Australians each week. But it doesn't have to.
Up to 90% of bowel cancers can be successfully treated if they are found early.
If you’re aged 50-74, then you have a higher risk of bowel cancer. By doing the free bowel cancer screening test, every 2 years when it’s sent to you in the mail, it could save your life.
What you’ll find on this page:
How the bowel cancer screening test works
You have an increased risk of bowel cancer if you are over the age of 50 years. The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program invites people aged 50 to 74 to screen for bowel cancer using a free, simple test at home.
Bowel screening is for people who are healthy and without any obvious symptoms of bowel cancer.
Screening can save lives by detecting the early signs of bowel cancer. It can also prevent bowel cancer, by detecting polyps or growths before they develop into cancer.
The bowel screening test, known as a faecal occult blood test (FOBT), looks for traces of blood in your poo that are invisible to the human eye and can be a sign of bowel cancer. The test requires you to collect small samples from two separate poos. Collect the two samples as close together as you can.
Watch the video below to see how the test works.
Learn about the test
Who can receive the bowel cancer screening kit?
People aged between 50 and 74 receive a free home bowel cancer screening test kit in the mail every two years, as part of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program. The test kit will arrive at the address listed on your Medicare card.
Generally, your first test kit will arrive within the first six months of your 50th birthday and then every two years from when you last returned the test.
If you are not eligible for the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program, speak with your doctor.
Finding bowel cancer early can save your life
If bowel cancer is found early, more than 90 per cent of cases can be successfully treated.
Bowel cancer can develop with no symptoms or family history. This means that doing regular screening is important, even if you feel well and live a healthy lifestyle.
If you have a family history of bowel cancer, speak to your doctor.
If you have symptoms like unexplained blood in your poo, a change in bowel habit, such as diarrhoea, constipation or smaller, more frequent poos, unexplained tiredness or weight loss, stomach pain or swelling, speak to your doctor.
Find more information about bowel cancer
Common questions about bowel cancer screening
What is the bowel and how does it work?
The bowel is part of the digestive system, which is also called the gastrointestinal (GI) or digestive tract. The digestive system starts at the mouth and ends at the anus. It helps the body break down food and turn it into energy. It also gets rid of the parts of food the body does not use. This solid waste matter is called faeces (also known as stools, or poo). The bowel is made up of the small bowel and the large bowel.
What is bowel cancer?
Bowel cancer is cancer in any part of the large bowel (colon or rectum). It is sometimes known as colorectal cancer and might also be called colon cancer or rectal cancer, depending on where it starts. Cancer of the small bowel is very rare and is usually called ‘small bowel cancer' or ‘small intestine cancer'.
Bowel cancer grows from the inner lining of the bowel (mucosa). It usually develops from small growths on the bowel wall called polyps. Most polyps are harmless (benign), but some become cancerous (malignant) over time.
If bowel cancer is not found early, it can spread into the wall of the bowel, lymph nodes and then to other organs, such as the liver or lungs.
More information about bowel cancer
How common is bowel cancer?
Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in Victoria. Most people who develop bowel cancer are aged over 50.
Bowel cancer is Australia’s second biggest cancer killer. In 2021, 1281 Victorians died from bowel cancer: 674 men and 607 women.
Who is at risk of bowel cancer?
Bowel cancer can occur at any age, but the risk is greater for people over the age of 50.
Other factors that can also increase your risk include:
- inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
- previously having special types of polyps in the bowel, called adenomas
- a significant family history of bowel cancer or polyps
- poor diet
- physical inactivity
- overweight and obesity
Quitting smoking, being active, enjoying a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and limited red and processed meats, limiting alcohol and maintaining a healthy body weight can all contribute to reducing your risk.
More information on leading a cancer smart lifestyle
What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?
Bowel cancer often develops without symptoms, but it is important to see your doctor as soon as you can if you notice any of the following:
- blood in your poo or in the toilet bowl
- a recent and persistent change in your toilet habit, such as looser poos, severe constipation and/or if you need to poo more often than usual
- unexplained tiredness or weight loss
- stomach pain.
The home bowel screening test is not suitable for people with symptoms. If you notice any symptoms, it's important that you speak to your doctor.
Learn more about bowel cancer symptoms
How is bowel cancer diagnosed?
If your home bowel test result is positive, you will receive a letter asking you to speak to your doctor about follow-up tests, usually a colonoscopy, to determine the cause.
A positive result means that traces of blood were found in the samples you sent to the pathology lab. Blood may be due to other conditions, and it doesn't mean you have cancer, but it does need to be investigated.
Find out more about how bowel cancer is diagnosed
Where can people with a bowel cancer diagnosis get support?
Cancer Council Victoria provides a range of free information and support services to help manage the impact of cancer.
You can speak with an experienced and understanding Cancer Council nurse for a confidential conversation about anything cancer related.
This may include:
- getting access to information
- connecting with support services for financial, legal, workplace, transport, accommodation and respite needs
- finding out about one-on-one or group support from others who've been through similar experiences (over the phone, online or in person).
You can access these services if you have cancer, have had it in the past, or are concerned about your cancer risk. Family, friends and colleagues are also welcome to call for information and support.
Call 13 11 20 or email a cancer nurse to find out more.
Who needs to screen for bowel cancer?
The risk of bowel cancer increases after the age of 50.
Cancer Council recommends that people aged between 50 and 74, who do not have symptoms or a significant family history of bowel cancer, do a simple at-home test every two years.
Regular screening is important because the at-home test detects bowel cancer in its early stages, before there are any noticeable symptoms. If detected early, more than 90 per cent of bowel cancers can be successfully treated. It can also prevent bowel cancer by detecting polyps or other growths, before they develop into cancer.
The home screening test is not suitable for people with symptoms or a significant family history of bowel cancer. If you think you have a family history, or if you have symptoms, speak to your doctor.
Can bowel cancer run in families?
Most people who develop bowel cancer do not have a family history. However, sometimes bowel cancer runs in families. If one or more of your close family members (such as a parent or sibling) have had bowel cancer at a young age (under 55 years) or if more than one close relative in your family has had bowel cancer at any age, it may increase your risk.
If you are concerned about your family history, talk to your doctor or call Cancer Council to speak with an experienced cancer nurse on 13 11 20.
What is a significant family history?
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 55 years); or
- more than one close relative in your family has had bowel cancer at any age.
If you think you have a family history of bowel cancer, you should talk to your doctor about your risk of getting the disease.