Early detection the key in surviving bowel cancer

Left to right: Staff specialist Dr Nicholas Burgess, Clinical nurse specialist Betty Lo.

Bowel, or colorectal cancer, is the second biggest cancer killer in Australia after lung and before prostate cancer.

It claims the lives of more than 80 Australians every week.

It is expected there will be 20,000 cases diagnosed in 2020, with just over half of these affecting men (around 55 per cent).

Bowel Cancer Awareness Month is an annual initiative of Bowel Cancer Australia during June to raise awareness and encourage people aged 50 and over to get checked.

The risk of bowel cancer rises sharply each year after you turn 50.

It is one of the most treatable types of cancer if found early.

Westmead Hospital is at the forefront of screening for bowel cancer, with its specialist Public FOBT clinic – the only one in Western Sydney.

“It’s a really preventable type of cancer,” said Dr Nicholas Burgess, staff specialist (gastroenterologist) at Westmead.

“The (Commonwealth) Government runs the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP) which is a way of picking out people who are at higher risk in the community of having bowel cancer, or pre-cancerous lesions called polyps, in the bowels.

“If you have a positive bowel cancer screening test or faecal occult blood test (FOBT) then you should have a colonoscopy because it’s possible we could detect early a cancer that occurs in about three to four per cent of people that have a positive test.

“Usually we find it at an early stage so the treatment outcomes are much better than if it was found later.”

In about 50 to 60 per cent of cases there is a benign growth called a polyp in the colon.

Polyps can be removed during a simple day procedure.

At Westmead’s FOBT clinic, patients having no alarming symptoms will be seen by a nurse specialist who will triage them for a colonoscopy as soon as possible.

They will receive education regarding diet modification and bowel preparation and a nurse can be contacted for any further questions.

The FOBT Clinic will also forward all pathology results to the referrer for follow up which helps to reduce unnecessary clinic visits.

Risk factors for bowel cancer include rectal bleeding or a strong family history of bowel cancer, with around 25 per cent of all cases linked to a hereditary contribution.

“Even if you’ve got no symptoms at all, you need to do that check, to make sure that you can reduce your risk of bowel cancer,” said Dr Nicholas Burgess.

The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP) asks eligible people (without symptoms) from age 50 to 74 to screen for bowel cancer using a free, simple test at home.

Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world with one in 23 developing it in their lifetime.

NBCSP participants are sent a free, clean, easy to use test kit to complete at home.

To be invited to take part in the program, your name is drawn from either Medicare or Department of Veterans’ Affairs enrolment records.

By the time the program is fully implemented in 2020, two-yearly screening will be offered to all eligible people aged 50 to 74 – that is around four million Australians every year.

“Prevention is the key and if it’s detected early more than 90 per cent can be cured,” said Westmead’s FOBT clinical nurse consultant Betty Lo.

“The more people know the importance of this bowel screening, the more willing they are to participate because this is a very easy test, very simple.”

The NBCSP could save up to 500 lives each year according to the Commonwealth Department of Health.

Free bowel cancer patient information and resources can be requested or downloaded from Bowel Cancer Australia at www.bowelcanceraustralia.org

Further information about the Federal Government’s National Bowel Cancer Screening Program can be found at www.cancerscreening.gov.au