National Bowel Cancer Screening Program

National Bowel Cancer Screening Program

Bowel cancer is one of the most common cancers in Australia. The estimated number of bowel cancers diagnosed in 2012 was 15,840 and the estimated number of deaths from bowel cancer was 3,950.1 The 2006 – 2010 five year relative survival from bowel cancer – that is, the proportion of people diagnosed with bowel cancer who are alive five years after diagnosis – was 66%.2

Bowel cancer can be treated more successfully if detected in its early stages. There is a 90% chance that a person diagnosed with bowel cancer in the early stages, will be alive five years after that diagnosis. This 5 year survival rate drops to between 7-19% if the cancer is diagnosed at late stage.3;4 However, currently fewer than 40% of bowel cancers are detected early.5

Screening is important because bowel cancer can develop without any early warning symptoms, so screening increases the chance of an early diagnosis. Research shows that screening for bowel cancer every two years can reduce deaths from bowel cancer by 15% – 25%.6

Through the National Bowel Cancer Screening program, which commenced in August 2006, Australians who are turning 50, 55, 60, 65 years of age will be offered a faecal occult blood test (FOBT) every two years. The FOBT is mailed to Australians who are identified through Medicare or Department of Veterans’ Affairs enrolment records, to complete in the privacy of their own homes and then mail to a pathology laboratory for analysis. There is no cost involved in completing the FOBT. A positive FOBT test does not indicate that a person has bowel cancer, but instead that they need to undergo further testing. Participants with a positive test may be referred by their GP for further tests, usually a colonoscopy.

In the 2014 Federal Budget, the Government announced a further $95.9 million over four years to accelerate the implementation of bowel cancer screening for all Australians aged 50-74 years between 2015 and 2020.

This additional funding means that as well as the people currently invited to screen, other age groups will be added to the screening program according to the following schedule:

  • 2015: 70 and 74 year olds
  • 2016: 72 and 64 year olds
  • 2017: 68, 58 and 54 year olds
  • The four remaining age groups – 52, 56, 62 and 66 year olds – will be included from 2018 – 2020.

Visit the National Bowel Cancer Screening website for more information.

If you are not eligible to be invited to participate in the National Bowel Cancer Screening program, you can speak with your doctor or pharmacist about how to obtain an FOBT.

For more information regarding screening for bowel cancer, speak to your doctor or call the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20.


1 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Bowel cancer. Australian Government, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2013 [cited 2014 Jun 17]; Available from: URL:

2 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Cancer survival and prevalence in Australia: period estimates from 1982 to 2010.  2012. Canberra, AIHW. Cancer Series no. 69. Cat no. CAN 65. Ref Type: Serial (Book,Monograph)

3 South Australian Cancer Registry. Epidemiology in South Australia: Incidence, mortality and survival 1977 to 1996. Adelaide: Open Book Publishers; 1997.

4 Morris M, Iacopetta B, Platell C. Comparing survival outcomes for patients with colorectal cancer treated in public and private hospitals. Medical Journal of Australia 2007;186(6):296-300.

5 National Bowel Cancer Screening Program DoH. Bowel cancer – the facts. Australian Government, Department of Health 2013 [cited 2014 Jun 17]; Available from: URL:

6 Pignone MP, Flitcroft KL, Howard K, Trevena LJ, Salkeld GP, St John DJB. Costs and cost effectiveness of full implementation of a biennial faecal occult blood test screening program for bowel cancer in Australia. Medical Journal of Australia 2011;194(4):180-5.