Screening tests

We look at the major screening programs for bowel, breast and prostate cancer.
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02.Bowel cancer screening

The National Bowel Cancer Screening program could save 2000 deaths annually when fully operational.

The program, which began in 2006, uses faecal occult blood tests (FOBT), but unfortunately one of the test kits was unreliable.

The program started again at the end of last year when about 600,000 test kits were rolled out. Men and women turning 50 between January 2008 and December 2010, and those turning 55 or 65 between July 2008 and December 2010, are now being offered a free FOBT kit for home use.

If you don’t want to wait for the program to catch up with you – especially if there’s a family history of the disease – you can use one of two home test kits from pharmacies:

  • Detectacol costs $29.95
  •  Insure costs $14.95. The Insure kit requires another $14.95 to be sent to the laboratory with the test card unless it is accompanied by a doctor’s letter.

You should consider FOBT if:

  • You are aged 50 or older, without symptoms and without a family history of bowel cancer. It is advised you take an FOBT every two years.
  • As with all screening tests, there will be false negative and false positive results. The FOBT is no exception, but it does meet international criteria for a screening test.
  • Remember that the benefits of screening, such as early detection, only apply if you are tested.

If your FOBT is positive, this does not necessarily mean cancer because several other conditions can result in bleeding in the bowel. However, it does mean you need further investigation, usually in the form of a colonoscopy, where the doctor can see the inside of the large bowel. Polyps that can go on to become cancerous, or early cancers, can be removed. But not all polyps or cancers bleed, so a negative FOBT does not guarantee no cancer. Another test that may be used, either alone or in conjunction with FOBT, is sigmoidoscopy, which examines the lower part of the large bowel. Deaths from bowel cancer in Australia were steady up to the mid-1980s. From then they have fallen by about 40%, probably due to a steady uptake of informal FOBT screening, reduced smoking, maybe better diets and more physical activity.


Cancer Council Australia
Cancer Helpline 13 11 20 (cost of a local call)
Cancer Screening


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