Australian Government Department of Health
National Bowel Cancer Screening Program
Photos of Older Australians

About the Program

This page provides up to date information on bowel cancer and where to get extra information.

Expansion of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program

As part of the 2012-13 Federal Budget, the Australian Government announced that the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program will be expanded to include Australians turning 60 years of age from 2013 and those turning 70 years of age from 2015.

Between 1 July 2012 and 31 December 2015 up to 4.8 million eligible Australians will be offered free bowel cancer screening which includes 1.2 million Australians aged 60 and 70 years.

The Program will be further expanded in 2017-18, when a phased implementation of biennial screening will commence. When fully implemented, all Australians aged between 50 and 74 years will be offered free screening every two years, consistent with the recommendations of the National Health and Medical Research Council.

The expansion of the program means that more than 12,000 suspected or confirmed cancers will be detected each year and between 300 and 500 lives saved annually. This will significantly reduce the burden of bowel cancer on Australians and their families.

Any Australians, including younger people, who have concerns about their risk of developing bowel cancer should discuss their health with their general practitioner.

Bowel cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer in Australia, and around 80 Australians die each week from the disease. Bowel cancer can be treated successfully if detected in its early stages, but currently fewer than 40 per cent of bowel cancers are detected early.

People eligible to participate in the program will receive an invitation through the mail to complete a simple test called a faecal occult blood test (FOBT) in the privacy of their own home and mail it to a pathology laboratory for analysis. There is no cost involved in completing the FOBT. These screening tests have been shown in overseas clinical trials and in the Bowel Cancer Screening Pilot Program to be simple to use and highly effective. Participants with a positive FOBT result will be advised to discuss the result with their doctor, who will generally refer them for further investigations, usually a colonoscopy.

Media release - Extension of Program to Fight Bowel Cancer

Who is currently being invited to take part in the program?

Australians turning 50, 55, 60 or 65 years of age, who hold a Medicare card or DVA card, are currently being invited to take part in the program.

Temporary visa holders and temporary residents will not be invited to participate in the program regardless of whether they are in the specified age range.

Why are only people turning 50, 55, 60 or 65 years of age currently being invited to take part?

Research shows that the risk of developing bowel cancer rises significantly from the age of 50. The National Health and Medical Research Council recommends that organised FOBT screening of average risk people should commence at 50 years of age.

It is important that the screening program be introduced slowly to provide time to ensure that health services, such as colonoscopy services, are able to meet any increased demand. From 2013, the Program will be progressively expanded to include more age groups, starting with 60 year olds and then 70 year olds in 2015.

How are people identified as eligible to be invited to participate in the program?

The names and addresses of people turning 50, 55, 60 or 65 years of age have been obtained from Medicare enrolment records or Department of Veterans' Affairs enrolment records.
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When will invitations be sent to participate in the program?

If a person is eligible, a pre-invitation letter followed by an invitation package, including an FOBT kit, will be sent by mail. While you will be invited as close as possible to your birthday, you may receive your invitation up to six months after your birthday.

Why do eligible people who don't have any symptoms need to participate in screening?

Screening involves testing for bowel cancer in people who do not have any obvious symptoms of the disease. The aim is to find cancer or pre-cancer early when it is easier to treat.

Screening is important because bowel cancer can develop without any early warning symptoms. Bowel cancer can be treated successfully if detected in its early stages.

Doing an FOBT every two years, can reduce your risk of dying from bowel cancer by up to one third.

Where can I go to get an FOBT if I am not eligible to participate in the program?

There are two main types of FOBT - immunochemical tests and traditional chemical (guaiac) tests.

An immunochemical FOBT has been selected as the preferred testing method for the program, in contrast to the guaiac FOBT, as it has no restrictions on diet or medication.

The type of immunochemical FOBT being used in the program is called New Hemtube (B) (Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics), but is not available for purchase by the public.

Guaiac FOBTs require a person not to consume red meat, specific fruit and vegetables (for example, raw broccoli,) vitamin C supplements, aspirin or anti-inflammatory drugs for three days prior to taking the first test sample and throughout the testing period.

You can speak with your doctor or pharmacist about purchasing an FOBT.

For more information regarding screening for bowel cancer, speak to your doctor or call the Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20.
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Page currency, Latest update: 05 December, 2013