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National Bowel Cancer Screening Program

What it does

The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP) is a population based screening program that aims to help detect bowel cancer early and reduce the number of Australians who die each year from the disease.

Screening involves testing people who do not have any obvious symptoms of the disease. The aim is to find polyps or cancer early when they are easier to treat and cure.

A Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT), currently the most well researched screening test for bowel cancer, is used by the program. The FOBT can detect tiny amounts of blood in faeces which may indicate the presence of cancer, pre-cancerous polyps or adenomas.

The NBCSP is currently inviting Australians turning 50, 55, 60 or 65 years of age to take part. From 2015, people turning 70 and 74 years of age will also be invited to screen. Other age groups will then be added progressively, so that by 2020 all Australians aged 50 to 74 years will be invited to screen every two years. This is consistent with the recommendations of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) for an FOBT every two years from the age of 50 years.

Eligible peoplei are sent a bowel cancer screening test kit (a FOBT) by mail and asked to complete the test at home and send it back to a laboratory for analysis. There is no cost involved in completing the test.

Test results are sent directly to the participant by the pathology laboratory. A copy of the result is also sent to the participant’s nominated doctor. Participants with a positive FOBT result are advised to see their doctor to discuss the result and referral to further diagnostic testing, usually colonoscopy.

A National Register records a participant’s test result as well as other health information specific to a person’s participation (ie colonoscopy result).

Follow-up health services after a positive FOBT are provided through state and territory government health services or private health services.

State and territory governments have a role in following-up participants with a positive result to encourage them to see their doctor and have appropriate diagnostic tests.

What it achieves

Since the NBCSP started in August 2006 over 4.3 million Australians have been invited to participate and around 38.4 per cent have chosen to do soii.

Programme reporting and independent research has indicated that the programme has resulted in the detection of earlier stage cancers and that participants diagnosed as a result of a positive screening test have a higher five year survival rate than patients presenting with symptomsiii.

The NBCSP’s latest monitoring report identified that between 2006 and 2013, more than 3000 suspected or confirmed cancers, and more than 13,720 pre-cancerous lesions were removed from participants. Almost 80% of bowel cancers removed were in the two earliest stages of cancer spread.

The expansion of the NBCSP to all Australians aged 50 to 74 years is expected to mean that more than 12,000 suspected or confirmed cancers will be detected each year, and approximately 300 to 500 lives saved annually. This will significantly reduce the burden of bowel cancer on Australians and their families.

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i The names and addresses of those eligible to participate in the program are drawn from Medicare and Department of Veteran’s Affairs enrolment records.
ii The number of invitations sent is as at 30 June 2013 and the participation rate of 39 per cent is an average.
iii Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2013. National Bowel Cancer Screening Program monitoring report: July 2012 -June 2013 . Cancer series no. 84 . Cat. No. CAN 81 . Canberra: AIHW.