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What is bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer refers specifically to cancer of the large intestine (that is, the colon or rectum). It is often referred to as colorectal cancer.

Why screen for bowel cancer?

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. The aim of bowel screening is to find polyps or cancer earlier, when they are easier to treat and cure.

Often very small amounts of blood leak from these growths and pass into the bowel motion before any symptoms are noticed. An immunochemical faecal occult blood test (commonly known as an iFOBT) is a non-invasive test which detects microscopic amounts of blood in the bowel motion. Bowel screening requires people to complete an iFOBT in their own home and send their completed iFOBT to a pathology laboratory for analysis. People with blood detected in their bowel motion are advised to consult their general practitioner to discuss further testing. In most cases this will involve a specialist looking inside the bowel using a special instrument. This procedure is known as a colonoscopy.

National Bowel Cancer Screening Program

In 2006 the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP) began providing free bowel screening to people turning 55 and 65 years. Those turning 50 and 60 were included from July 2008 and 2013 respectively.

Program expansion to implement biennial screening for those aged 50–74 started in January 2015. It is due to be completed by 2020.

The AIHW monitors and reports on the performance of the NBCSP. These reports can be found under the further information link below.

Participation in the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program

About 39% of the 2.6 million people invited from January 2014 to December 2015 returned a completed bowel cancer screening kit for analysis. This overall participation rate was higher than in recent years.

Participation rates were higher for women than men and generally increased with increasing age.

Crude participation, by age and sex, 2014–2015

Vertical bar chart showing for males, females; target age (50-54, 55-59, 60-64, 65-69) on the x axis; crude participation (0 to 60 per cent) on the y axis.

Source: National Bowel Cancer Screening Program Register as at 31 December 2016.

Sixty six per cent of all participants came from Major cities; however, participation rates were higher in Inner regional (42%) and Outer regional (40%) areas than all other geographical areas.

Crude participation, by remoteness area, 2014–2015

Vertical bar chart showing; remoteness area (major cities, inner regional, outer regional, remote, very remote) on the x axis; crude participation (0 to 50 per cent) on the y axis.

Source: National Bowel Cancer Screening Program Register as at 31 December 2016.

Analysis of invitees grouped into population‑based socioeconomic status groups showed invitees from within the lowest socioeconomic areas (the areas with the most disadvantage) had lower participation than for those living in all other socioeconomic areas.

Crude participation, by socioeconomic group, 2014–2015

Vertical bar chart showing; socioeconomic status (lowest 1 to highest 5) on the x axis; crude participation (0 to 50 per cent) on the y axis.

Source: National Bowel Cancer Screening Program Register as at 31 December 2016.

Further information

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For more information on NBCSP please see www.cancerscreening.gov.au.