Date posted: 21/06/2018 4 min read

A guide to bowel cancer prevention

One in 13 Australians will develop bowel cancer. Knowing the signs and regular screening are key to tackling the disease.

In Brief

  • Learn the signs of bowel cancer and how to self-screen.
  • Understand the bowel cancer risk factors and if you are at risk of developing bowel cancer.
  • Most bowel cancers can be treated successfully.

Brought to you by HCF.

More than 15,000 Australians are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year. It’s more common in men, with the average age of diagnosis being 69. About 4000 of those diagnosed die from the disease each year but with awareness, screening and lifestyle changes, this figure can be reduced.

“Ninety per cent of bowel cancer cases can be successfully treated if detected early,” states Professor Graham Newstead of Bowel Cancer Australia.

Most bowel cancers develop from polyps, which are little growths in the bowels, but not all polyps turn into cancers. The size of the polyp corresponds to the cancer risk: a polyp smaller than 1 centimetre has less than a 1 per cent chance of being a cancer, but a polyp greater than 2 centimetres carries a 40% cancer risk.


The Bristol Stool Chart can help you learn about your bowel health. It’s a medical classification system of seven types of stools and the conditions they may represent.

Unfortunately, many people only act after they notice significant change in their bowel habits, stool consistency or colour, or see blood on toilet paper or in the bowl. By this stage, however, Professor Newstead says it’s sometimes too late, which is why screening every one to two years from age 50 is vital.

Screening can be conducted at home using a faecal immunochemical test (FIT), which can be obtained from your doctor or pharmacy. The government sends out free FIT kits to people aged 50, 55, 60, 65, 70 and 74. Sadly, only 33% of the tests are returned. “It’s because of the ‘ick factor’,” says Professor Newstead. “Yes, it’s a bit yucky and embarrassing to have to do it, but it’s worse to die unnecessarily of bowel cancer.”

Personal risk

If you have a family history of bowel cancer, your risk is double that of someone without a first degree relative who has had bowel cancer. Professor Newstead advises speaking to your doctor and having a colonoscopy as your baseline gauge, then taking the FIT test every one to two years. There are often no outward signs of bowel cancer in the early stages. It can be detected only through testing.

Bowel cancer risk factors

  • being over 50
  • being overweight
  • smoking
  • drinking alcohol
  • having a poor diet
  • being inactive
  • having type 2 diabetes
  • having other bowel conditions such as Crohn’s disease
  • family history of bowel cancer.

June is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month. Support the vital work of Bowel Cancer Australia on Red Apple Day (Wednesday 20 June) by purchasing a Bowel Cancer Awareness Ribbon and apple themed fundraising activities. For more information, visit Bowel Cancer Australia.

HCF members on eligible extras cover may be able to claim their bowel cancer tests for the age groups not covered by the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program. As a CA ANZ member, you can also access a great range of additional benefits when you join HCF as a corporate member. To learn about the full benefits, please visit

This article first appeared in Fit & Well Magazine.

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