Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, is a very common cancer in Australia. Up to 90 per cent of bowel cancers can be treated effectively if found early.
Cancer Council recommends all Australians aged 50 years and over undertake a bowel screening test (faecal occult blood test) every two years.
Early detection of bowel cancer
If bowel cancer is found at an early stage, the chances of surviving are higher. Up to 90 per cent of bowel cancers can be treated effectively if found early.
To find early signs of bowel cancer, it is recommended that all Australians do a bowel screening test every two years from the age of 50. The bowel screening test can find early signs of cancer, long before symptoms develop.
The bowel screening test, also known as a faecal occult blood test (FOBT), looks for tiny amounts of blood in your faeces. An FOBT is completed at home and the sample is sent to a laboratory. The test will identify people who may need further testing.
The test is quick, clean, and easy to do.
Bowel screening tests are for people who do not have symptoms. If you have symptoms, see your GP.
National Bowel Cancer Screening Program
People aged 50-74, will receive a free FOBT test kit every two years in the mail as part of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program. It is important you complete and return your FOBT kit when it arrives in the post.
Visit ncsr.gov.au or call the National Cancer Screening Register on 1800 627 701 to:
- find out when the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program will send you a free FOBT kit
- order a replacement test if you have lost or damaged your FOBT kit, or if it has expired
- download more resources in your language.
If you need assistance to complete your FOBT kit, call the Test Kit Helpline on 1800 930 998.
FOBT instructions are available in other languages on the Multilingual Information page or you can ring Translating and Interpreting Services for assistance on 131 450.
If you are not eligible for a free FOBT under the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program, speak with your GP about other options for bowel screening.
Some pharmacies have FOBT kits available for purchase over the counter. It is recommended that you discuss the use of FOBT kits with your GP before purchasing a kit to make sure that screening is right for you.
For more information about bowel screening, call Cancer Council SA on 13 11 20.
Everyone is at risk of developing bowel cancer. However, research shows that people with certain risk factors are more likely to develop bowel cancer. Risk factors include:
- older age – most people with bowel cancer are over 50, and the risk increases with age
- polyps – having a large number of polyps in the bowel
- bowel diseases – people who have an inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, have a significantly increased risk, particularly if they have had it for more than eight years
- lifestyle factors – being overweight, having a diet high in red meat or processed meats such as salami or ham, drinking alcohol and smoking
- strong family history – a small number of bowel cancers run in families
- other diseases – people who have had bowel cancer once are more likely to develop a second bowel cancer; some people who have had ovarian or endometrial (uterine) cancer may have an increased risk of bowel cancer
- rare genetic disorders – a small number of bowel cancers are associated with an inherited gene.
If you think you are at an increased risk of bowel cancer or have any concerns, see your GP.
If one or more of your family members (such as a parent, sibling or child) have been diagnosed with bowel cancer before the age of 55, this may increase your risk of bowel cancer. This is especially the case if they were diagnosed before the age of 55, or if there are two or more close relatives on the same side of your family with bowel cancer. A family history of other cancers, such as endometrial (uterine) cancer, may also increase your risk of developing bowel cancer.
There are two very rare conditions that can run in families. About five to six per cent of bowel cancers are caused by these inherited genetic conditions.
Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP)
This condition causes many polyps to form in the bowel. If polyps caused by FAP are not removed they may become cancerous.
This syndrome is characterised by a fault in the gene that helps the cell’s DNA repair itself. It may increase the risk of bowel cancer or other cancers.
If you are concerned about bowel cancer because of your family history, see your GP to discuss the need for regular check-ups or whether genetic testing would be suitable for you.
Regular screening is important because bowel cancer can develop without noticeable symptoms. However, it is important to be aware of what is normal for you. You should see your GP if you notice any changes such as:
- blood in the stools or on the toilet paper
- a change in bowel habit, such as diarrhoea, constipation or smaller, more frequent bowel movements
- a change in appearance or consistency of bowel movements (e.g. narrower stools or mucus in stools)
- a feeling of fullness or bloating in the abdomen or a strange sensation in the rectum, often during a bowel movement
- feeling that the bowel hasn’t emptied completely
- unexplained weight loss
- weakness or fatigue
- rectal or anal pain
- a lump in the rectum or anus
- abdominal pain or swelling
- a low red blood cell count (anaemia), which can cause tiredness and weakness
- rarely, a blockage in the bowel.
Not everyone with these symptoms has bowel cancer, and it may be due to other health conditions. Changes in bowel function are common and often do not indicate a serious problem. However, any amount of bleeding is not normal, and you should see your doctor for a check-up.
Research suggests that many cases of bowel cancer can be prevented by leading a healthy lifestyle.
Your most effective protection against bowel cancer is to:
- do a bowel screening test every two years from age 50
- get 30 minutes of vigorous or 60 minutes of moderate intensity exercise on five or more days per week
- maintain a healthy body weight
- eat a fibre-rich, well-balanced diet
- avoid processed meat, and limit red meat to no more than 455g of cooked meat per week
- avoid or limit alcohol
- quit smoking.
For more information about how you can reduce your risk of bowel cancer, see your GP, or call Cancer Council SA on 13 11 20.
This webpage was last reviewed and updated in July 2022.