Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world. The lifetime risk of developing bowel cancer before the age of 75 is around one in 19 for men and one in 28 for women. This makes bowel – or colorectal – cancer the third most common cancer in Australia and the second most common cause of cancer death. In 2017, it’s predicted that 16,682 Australians will be diagnosed with bowel cancer.
The risk factors for bowel cancer include older age, colonic polyps, bowel diseases, strong family history and rare genetic disorders. Lifestyle factors such as being overweight, having a diet high in red meat, drinking alcohol and smoking also put people at higher risk of bowel cancer.
The good news is that almost 90 per cent of bowel cancers can be cured if detected early. Finding bowel cancer early can substantially improve a person’s chance of surviving the disease. Australia’s National Bowel Cancer Screen Program aims to reduce deaths from bowel cancer through early detection of the disease.
Bowel cancer screening plays critical role in saving lives
Cancer Council NSW researchers have estimated the benefits, harms and cost-effectiveness of Australia’s National Bowel Cancer Screening Program between 2015 and 2040. The researchers also estimated the impact that improved participation rates could have on the number of new cases of bowel cancer and deaths from the disease.
Currently, only around 40 per cent of those who are eligible for bowel screening participate in the program. At this current level of participation, the program is expected to prevent 92,200 new cancer cases and 59,000 deaths between now and 2040.
Our study found that even at its current participation rate, the program will have a major impact on the burden of bowel cancer in the Australian population – however, we could avert an additional 37,300 cases and 24,800 deaths if participation increased to 60 per cent.
This means that if just 20 per cent more Australians participated in the program, 83,800 lives could be saved between now and 2040.
Figure 1 Estimated number of bowel cancer deaths prevented in Australia in 2005-2059 if National Bowel Cancer Screening Program participation rate remains at the currently observed level, and if screening participation increase to 60% by 2020 and ~70% by 2030, compared with no screening.
The study also examined the cost-effectiveness of the program – and found that it was highly cost-effective.
Because of the high burden of disease for bowel cancer and the very high costs of treating this disease, the program is predicted to start resulting in cost savings overall, within a decade of full roll-out.
A simple test could save your life
Cancer Council strongly encourages Australians aged 50-74 years to take part in the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program when they are sent the test kit.
Our study has shown that even a modest increase in participation in the program will have an enormous impact on the burden of disease over the next 25 years.
The study used Policy1-Bowel, Cancer Council NSW’s own predictive modelling platform, which simulates bowel cancer development and screening.
About the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program
The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program was introduced in Australia in 2006. Currently, Australians aged 50, 54, 55, 58, 60, 64, 68, 70, 72 and 74 are eligible for the faecal occult blood test (FOBT) free of charge through the NBCSP. The program will be fully rolled out for 2-yearly screening in all people aged 50-74 years by 2020.
1.Lew J-B, St John DJB, Xu X-M, Greuter MJE, Caruana M, Cenin DR, et al. Long-term evaluation of benefits, harms, and cost-effectiveness of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program in Australia: a modelling study. Lancet Public Health. 2017 Jul 1;2(7):e331–40.