Finding Bowel Cancer Early
A simple test to check for early signs of bowel cancer can save lives. The faecal occult blood test (FOBT) can detect tiny amounts of blood in your faeces (poo). The FOBT kit is much simpler than its name. (Occult means ‘hidden’.)
You can get an FOBT kit from GPs and some chemists. The kit instructions are different for each test. For some tests you collect samples of three different bowel motions and smear them on slides or cards, and for others you collect toilet water on the card or slides. Collect the samples in your home and send them to the laboratory for testing or return them as instructed.
If your samples are sent away for testing, it is vital that you are told the result, whether it is positive or negative. If you don’t hear back within two weeks, contact the manufacturer or talk to your doctor.
There are several types of FOBT. Some won’t work properly unless you avoid certain foods for several days beforehand.
Who should have an FOBT?
Men and women 50 and over should have an FOBT at least every two years (or every year if possible). The test picks up most bowel cancer, and by doing it every year, you increase your chance of finding bowel cancer early.
What does the test find?
The test can find tiny amounts of blood in your faeces. The blood can come from a cancer in the bowel. But a positive test doesn’t mean you have bowel cancer. Most people who have blood in their faeces have it for some other reason, such as piles. It will only be cancer in a few cases.
To find out for sure, you’ll need more tests, such as a colonoscopy. To do a colonoscopy the doctor looks in your bowel through a tube, and takes a sample of tissue for testing.
It’s worth being tested. There’s a 90 per cent chance that bowel cancer can be cured if it’s found early enough. So if you have a positive result on your FOBT, talk it over with your doctor.
What if I have a family history of bowel cancer?
If your mother, father, brother or sister have had bowel cancer, you could be at higher risk, even if you’re under 50. Talk to your doctor about it. It may be best for you to have a colonoscopy every couple of years, to look very carefully for early bowel cancers. If this is the case for you, FOBT can’t take the place of regular colonoscopies.
How much will it cost?
The kits cost between $15 and $30, which usually includes the cost of processing. Rotary runs a bowel screening program once a year, usually in March, when they sell kits for a much cheaper price.
Where can I get a kit?
Kits are available through some chemists and some GPs. For more information, talk to your GP or call the Cancer Helpline on 13 11 20.
Why isn’t there an organised screening program?
The benefit of regular FOBT has only become certain recently, and there is no national screening program for bowel cancer yet. A five-year trial of a screening program is running in a few parts of Australia, and it will probably be introduced for the whole of Australia in the future.
For information and counselling call the Cancer Helpline on 13 11 20 for the cost of a local call