Bowel cancer is common in Australia, but there is a lot of support in place to help you detect the disease early.
Bowel cancer, also known as colon cancer, is cancer that occurs in the colon or the rectum. It is one of the top five causes of early death in Australians aged 50+.
The good news is, the earlier it is detected, the better your chances are for survival. Here's everything you need to know about getting screened for bowel cancer.
What is bowel cancer screening?
Bowel cancer screening is simply the process of checking your poo for blood. If you look in the toilet after a poo to check for blood, you're technically doing a screen. But there are also at-home test kits called faecal immunochemical tests (FIT) that allow you to send your poo to a lab that will screen it for small traces of blood that the naked eye could easily miss.
The reason it is called a screen is because it doesn't tell you whether or not you have bowel cancer. It merely screens you for risk factors (like blood in your poo) that tell doctors you need further testing.
Who should be screened for bowel cancer?
Bowel cancer mainly affects older Australians, so according to Bowel Cancer Australia, you should have your bowels screened every two years if you are over the age of 50 (or over the age of 45 if you've had one relative with the disease).
What is the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program?
Studies have shown that if you screened an entire the entire population most at risk for bowel cancer (in this case, people between 50-74), you could bring down the overall rates of death. So the aim of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP) is to do just that: to screen all Australians 50-74 for signs of bowel cancer every two years.
The program is still rolling out. Currently if you were born before 31/12/1964 and have a Medicare card, the NBCSP will send you a free at-home bowel screening kit by mail every two years, or you can contact the NBCSP information line to request yours. By the time the program is fully implemented in 2020, everyone aged 50-74 who has a Medicare card will be on board.
Where else can you get a screening kit?
If you are currently ineligible for the national screening program, some private insurers will cover screening. For example, GMHBA offers one free test kit every two years to customers who have any one of their extras policies and who are ineligible for the national program.
You can also buy your own testing kit from most pharmacies.
What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?
Besides using the screening kit, there are other ways you can tell if it's time to get yourself tested. No matter what age you are and regardless of whether you've recently taken the screen or not, you should see a doctor if you experience any of the following:
- An unexplained change in your bowel movements. Maybe your stool has become looser or more frequent. Or you are finding yourself constipated more often after previously being regular.
- Blood in your stool. A testing kit can help you detect blood in your stool. Of course, if you can see blood in your stool, you don't need a kit for that. Just go straight to the doctor.
- Pain or cramping in your belly or abdomen. If you feel bloated, have pain or feel any lumps in your belly or abdomen, you need to see your doctor.
- A pain in your butt. No, we're not talking about the bratty neighbor kid. If you have a pain or lump in your rectum or anus, it's time to see your GP.
Just because you may have one or more of these symptoms, it doesn't necessarily mean you have bowel cancer. They could have any number of other causes, some less serious than others. But get checked out regardless because you're better safe than sorry.
Who will need a bowel cancer test?
If your bowel cancer screen comes back positive or your doctor thinks you should be tested based on other symptoms, you will need to have follow up testing done to test for the presence of bowel cancer.
There are multiple tests doctors can use. These include:
- Colonoscopy. This is the most effective test for bowel cancer and examines the length of the large bowel for any unusual tissue.
- CT/MRI scan. MRI scans produce cross-sectional pictures of the body and can be used to identify tumours, while CT scans generate 3D images that can be used to examine the bowel.
- Barium x-ray. This involves using a white liquid that will show any swelling or lumps in the bowel.
- PET scan. PET stands for positron emission tomography, and this type of scan involves the use of radioactive glucose, which makes cancer cells show up brighter when scanned.
- Ultrasound. Ultrasounds use sound waves that produce an echo when they encounter a tumour in the bowel.
What happens if you have bowel cancer?
The good news is, 90% of cases can be treated successfully if detected early, according to Bowel Cancer Australia.
Treatment options vary on a case-by-case basis and include surgery, chemotherapy, immunotherapy and drugs to relieve pain. If bowel cancer has spread to other parts of your body, unfortunately treatment may not be able to cure the disease.
However, it’s possible to manage and control the condition for a long period of time, and having an adequate level of health insurance protection in place ensures that you can cover the resulting medical costs.
Will bowel cancer be covered by Medicare or private health insurance?
We've already mentioned that Medicare takes a proactive approach to screening Australians for bowel cancer. If you do end up needing treatment in a hospital, Medicare will also cover your treatment in a public hospital.
With mid-level or comprehensive private hospital cover, you can get your treatment in a private hospital with your choice of cover. It will typically cover procedures like chemo, radiotherapy, surgery, in-hospital phycological counselling and in-hospital physio.
If you have private extras cover, you can even get cover for outpatient psychological counselling, and outpatient physio.
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Tips on how to prevent bowel cancer
The best way to beat bowel cancer is to prevent it entirely, and there are many steps you can take to reduce your bowel cancer risk, including:
- Quit smoking
- Limit your red meat consumption
- Avoid processed meats
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Limit your alcohol consumption
- Eat high-fibre foods
- Stay active