Screening involves testing for bowel cancer in people who do not have any obvious symptoms of the disease. The aim is to find any polyps or cancer early when it is easier to treat and cure. 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. Often very small amounts of blood leak from these growths and pass into the bowel motion before any symptoms are noticed.
A test called a Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) can detect these small amounts of blood in your bowel motion. The FOBT looks for blood in your bowel motion, but not for bowel cancer itself. Although no screening test is 100% accurate, the FOBT is currently the most well researched screening test for bowel cancer. Because cancers and precancerous growths only bleed now and then it is possible that the FOBT can miss some bleeding. This is why it is important that you see your doctor if you have, or ever do develop symptoms, regardless of your FOBT result.
If you do a FOBT every two years, you can reduce your risk of dying from bowel cancer by up to one third. If at any time you develop any of the symptoms of bowel cancer (eg. rectal bleeding, blood in bowel motions, recent changes in bowel habits, unexplained tiredness, anaemia, abdominal pain etc) or discover a family history of bowel cancer you should contact your doctor as soon as possible.
Bowel cancer can develop with few, if any, warning signs. This is a type of cancer that can be treated successfully if detected in its early stages, but currently fewer than 40 per cent of bowel cancers in Australia are detected early. Regular screening, using an FOBT, can reduce the number of people who die each year from bowel cancer.