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Tackling bowel cancer on a national scale

Wednesday 20 February, 2019

Professor Karen Canfell


Professor Karen Canfell and the Cancer Council bowel cancer research team specialise in looking at the big picture – the what, where, when and how of cancer. So when there is a large scale cancer problem that needs to be addressed, like bowel cancer, she is an expert in evaluating the best and most effective action.

Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world with around 1 in 13 Australians developing bowel cancer during their lifetime. Sadly, it is also the second biggest cause of cancer death in our country.

“Bowel cancer is Australia’s second biggest cancer killer. Research is vital to help us reduce the number of Australians impacted. Our modelling has helped us understand the vital role screening can play.”

In 2014, the Federal Government committed to the full implementation of the program and by 2020 every Australian aged 50 to 74 will receive a free screening test every two years. Cancer Council researchers and experts from across the country were instrumental in providing the evidence to support the effectiveness of Australia’s bowel cancer screening program, publishing a series of papers showing the potential lifesaving benefits.

But once a cancer screening program is in place – how do you make sure it is providing the maximum benefit and encourage governments to do more?

Professor Karen Canfell specialises in looking at the big picture – the what, where, when and how of cancer. So when there is a big cancer problem that needs to be addressed, like bowel cancer, she is an expert in evaluating the best and most effective course of action.

Cancer Council researchers, Professor Canfell and Dr Jie Bin Lew and the other members of the Cancer Council bowel cancer research team, have designed an innovative computer modelling program called Policy1-Bowel. Incorporating a wealth of bowel cancer data from here and overseas, they have used the model to simulate dozens of different scenarios, crunching the numbers to identify the most effective way to ensure more cancers are prevented and diagnosed early – when they are easiest to treat.

The outcome of their research is clear. One of the most powerful ways to reduce the number of lives lost from bowel cancer across the population is to increase participation in the existing National Bowel Cancer Screening Program. Currently only around 40 percent of Australians complete and return the test when it arrives in the mail. They estimate that if screening participation increases to 60 percent, the screening program could have an extraordinary impact, saving 84,000 lives by the year 2040.

Their research has supported the development of the latest clinical guidelines for the prevention, early detection and treatment of bowel cancer, funded by the Australian Department of Health and supported by Cancer Council Australia.

With the evidence firmly in hand, Cancer Council has pushed tirelessly to get the government to fund a major campaign to get as many eligible Australians as possible to screen for bowel cancer risk and turn the results of this research into reality.

Already 3.5 million Australians have taken part in this simple and non-invasive screening process. Thousands of people with early bowel cancer or early signs of cancer have been identified and successfully treated. However, even more lives can be saved if more people take part and the evidence around bowel cancer is constantly evolving.

“The power of the Policy1-Bowel platform is ongoing. We can continue to input data as it changes to tweak or refine the model. This means we are able to rapidly provide evidence and support for policy change.”

That’s why Professor Canfell and her team are still on the case – evaluating and optimising how screening programs are delivered, to ensure the maximum number of lives can be saved.


As a not-for-profit, we rely on the generosity of the community to continue this life-saving work. Donate, fundraise or volunteer your time to help us build a cancer free future.

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