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Too many Victorians putting themselves at risk of second-biggest cancer killer

Friday 23 October, 2015


Fewer than one-third of eligible Victorians are completing free bowel screening kits in some local government areas, new statistics reveal, despite early detection providing the best chance of survival.

The statistics1 released today by Cancer Council Victoria and Victorian Health Minister Jill Hennessy show participation in the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program by local government area for people aged 50-65 who completed and returned a free bowel screening kit2 after it was mailed to their home.

Local Victorian government areas with the highest participation include:

  1. East Gippsland - 47.2%
  2. Horsham - 46.2%
  3. Wangaratta - 46.1%
  4. Indigo - 45.2%
  5. Mansfield - 45.1%

Local Victorian government areas with the lowest participation include:

  1. Frankston - 32.2%
  2. Hume - 32.5%
  3. Melton - 32.7%
  4. Casey - 32.8%
  5. Melbourne - 32.9%

Across Victoria, only 37.6% of eligible people are taking part in the program.

ancer Council Victoria Chief Executive Todd Harper said the data was concerning, particularly given bowel cancer was the second-biggest cancer killer of Victorians.

Many people are literally throwing these free, non-intrusive and effective bowel screening kits in the ‘too hard basket'," Mr Harper said.

We are also seeing large variance in people taking part in this free program across the state, with Melbourne residents putting themselves at greater risk of this preventable cancer by not screening."

Nine in 10 bowel cancers can be successfully treated with early detection.

Cancer Council Victoria screening manager Kate Broun said the kit was simple to use and accurate at detecting bowel cancer risk.

"The faecal occult blood test (FOBT) kit should be the first step to all Australians aged 50 to 74 without symptoms or family history to screen for bowel cancer. We recommend screening every two years, so even if you are not yet eligible to receive a free kit, you should see your doctor to make sure you get tested"3, Ms Broun said.

The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program began in 2006 and has been progressively expanding the age groups invited to participate. By 2020, all Australians aged 50 to 74 will be invited to participate every two years.

"The FOBT kit is a very accurate identifier of bowel cancer risk, it picks up 83% of bowel cancer cases in the first round of screening alone4. Data5 shows us that people who have completed the test found it easy, and almost three-quarters of them do the test again further down the track," Ms Broun said.

Real story

Devika (Dee) Jayawardene from Greenvale resides in the local area with the second-worst bowel screening rates in the state, but she was one of the few who completed an FOBT kit when it was first sent to her at 50, three years ago.

She didn't have symptoms or a family history but completed the test after she urged her husband to do his.

"I am eternally grateful that I chose to do the FOBT when I did," Devika said.

After her positive FOBT result and further tests she was told she had bowel cancer.

Through Devika's treatment, she said everyone around her was affected.

"Initially my husband and son were in denial. Our two children had to grow up fast and take responsibility to look after the mother. I am very grateful to our friends who fed the family for a year as well as taking the time to take me for many hospital visits and be with me through the tough times.

"I'm so thankful for the FOBT and Cancer Council's guidance, otherwise I wouldn't be here today.

"I want to get the word out bowel cancer can be treatable, especially in my community. In Sri Lanka, we think of having cancer as getting a death sentence. Also we hardly speak about cancer. It is a taboo subject. "

To people who are throwing out the FOBT kit sent by the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program, Devika says: "Don't take a chance. If you can find it before cancer grows there is treatment. You don't have to have a family history to be diagnosed with bowel cancer. Just do it."

State and metro Victorian LGA participation maps, Seeing Red report and interviews are available with Todd Harper, Cancer Council Victoria Chief Executive and bowel cancer survivors. 

1 Seeing Red report. Statistics from the report attributed to the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program participation report for people aged 50, 55, 60, 65 who returned a completed FOBT from July 2013 to June 2014. Seeing Red report available upon request.

2 The at-home screening kit is called the faecal occult blood test (FOBT). It looks for tiny amounts of blood (invisible to the naked eye) in two small samples of bowel motions.
The FOBT is not diagnostic but serves as a first step to identify blood in the stool, which may be an early sign of cancer. With a positive result, follow up tests are required before a diagnosis of cancer.

3 If you are aged 50-74 years and you don't receive a free kit in the mail, you can call the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program on 1800 118 868 to see when you will receive a free kit or see your doctor about how to obtain a test kit (a cost may apply).

4 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2014. Analysis of bowel cancer outcomes for the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.

5 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's National Bowel Cancer Screening Program Monitoring Report 2013-14.