Hundreds of Queenslanders who die from bowel cancer each year can be saved through regular screening, according to the latest National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP) data reported by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Health Promotion Officer Rachael Bagnall, whose role focuses on bowel cancer prevention and early detection within Metro South Health’s Princess Alexandra Hospital said the NBCSP helped to identify early markers of the disease, greatly improving the chance of successful treatment.
“Bowel cancer can be symptomless for a long time, so it’s important to be screened regularly. Cancer can take around 10 years to develop in some instances, from a little bit of abnormal cell growth, to a polyp, to early and then late stage cancer,” she said. “The good news is, if we find it early, we can successfully treat bowel cancer in patients 90 percent of the time.”
Ms Bagnall said the test to detect bowel cancer was quick, simple and non-invasive.
“If you’re aged between 50 and 74 the NBCSP will send you a test kit in the mail every two years. All you need to do is lay the provided biodegradable sheet in the bowl, empty your bowels, and then brush the test stick over the bowel motion before returning the stick to its airtight container,” she said. “If the test is positive for trace bleeding, further tests, usually a colonoscopy, will be needed to find out the cause.”
Since the bowel screening program commenced in 2006, over 3.6 million people have participated in at least one screening round. From the data available for participants who have had diagnostic assessment, 1 in 29 have been diagnosed with a confirmed or suspected cancer and 1 in 8 have had an adenoma detected.
Brisbane NBCSP participant Stanislaw Wiatrowski said he was stunned when he found out he had bowel cancer after submitting his own stool sample a year ago, and that screening had saved his life.
“I am in general a very healthy person for my age. I’ve always had a good diet and exercise regularly so I really didn’t expect I would have bowel cancer. At the time I submitted my sample, I had no symptoms at all but because I was in my late 50s and it was free, I took the test. When the positive result came back, I was shocked.”
Mr Wiatrowski said that after having robotic surgery to remove the cancerous section of his bowel, followed by elective chemotherapy, his doctor was confident he had overcome his illness, although he would still need regular monitoring to confirm his bowel remained cancer-free.
“I don’t want to sugar-coat the experience but having the best kind of support from the staff at Princess Alexandra Hospital made managing my diagnosis doable. I can’t speak highly enough of the nurses and doctors there.”
Mr Wiatrowski said he would encourage anyone who was eligible to take the free test to take it.
“I am telling everyone I know to just do it - do the poo test! For a variety of reasons, I lost my first poo test and if I hadn’t and had submitted it earlier, I’d probably have had an easier ride getting over my cancer. Taking that second test saved my life.”
Mr Wiatrowski said the benefits of screening far outweighed any perceived inconvenience or discomfort people may have about participating.
“The thing about the poo test is that it seems daunting until you do it, but it’s not a big deal. It’s not messy or anything, and it’s so important.
“To be worried about a temporary squeamish thing, like jabbing a test stick into your faeces…believe me, not doing it is going to lead to a far worse set of circumstances in your life,” he said.
“For most people you’re not going to go beyond the test, and even if you have to have a colonoscopy, it’s a bit of a pain but if it means you avoid cancer then it’s worth it.”
Ms Bagnall said Princess Alexandra Hospital’s bowel health promotion efforts in June, Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, were focused on advancing screening participation rates in the community.
“We are at about 40 percent screening participation nationally, but we want to increase that,” she said. “Cancers that are found early are easier to treat and screening is our primary mechanism for identifying them.”
Ms Bagnall said bowel cancer was a very common cancer in Australia.
“We have one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world. While everyone is at risk of developing bowel cancer, the risk is greater if you are aged over 50, have a family history of bowel cancer or polyps, have an unhealthy lifestyle, are a smoker, are overweight or obese, and if you have inflammatory bowel disease or Type II Diabetes.
“Regular testing from age 50 onwards is still important because unfortunately, there are plenty of people like Mr Wiatrowski who get bowel cancer who do lead healthy lives.”
In 2016 the Queensland Cancer Register reported that 3,199 Queenslanders were diagnosed with bowel cancer and 1,105 died from the disease. On average, one in 11 men and one in 15 women are diagnosed with bowel cancer by age 85.
To learn more about bowel cancer and bowel cancer screening visit www.cancerscreening.gov.au or reach out to Metro South Health’s bowel cancer screening health promotion team.