James Armstrong story

How Screening Saves Lives

Over 15,400 people will be diagnosed with colorectal, or bowel, cancer this year, but a third will not survive past five years.

James Armstrong is one of the lucky ones. After his father was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 1970, he underwent two bowel resections and survived for another 35 years. Sadly, in 2005 he passed away after recurrence of rectal tumours and heart disease. James knew that because of this family history, he had to be extra vigilant with his health and started getting regular colonoscopies in 2001.

In 2010 however, his worst nightmare came to fruition when his colonoscopy revealed a pre-cancerous polyp with high-grade dysplasia. “I found it hard to get my head around the diagnosis. I was worried that my surgeon might be overreacting and how surgery might affect my bowel function for the rest of my life. I wanted a second opinion, then a third, but they all agreed with the initial diagnosis,” James said.

At the age of 50 – the same age his father was when he had major bowel surgery – James underwent a bowel resection, which removed part of his bowel.

Despite the initial surgery going well more polyps have since been found leaving James and his family, wondering what the next colonoscopy will show.

But James knows that it was only his commitment to regular check-ups that saved him. “I feel very lucky that I found it early,” says James.

When first diagnosed he felt nothing, not a single symptom. Early detection, like in James’ case drastically improves survival, but the lack of early symptoms means many colorectal cancers are not picked up until they are in the advanced stage. By then it may have spread to other organs, at which point a patient’s life is usually measured in months, not years.

Despite improvements in survival rates over the last thirty years, there is a still a long way to go and sadly colorectal cancer is increasingly impacting younger generations. People born after 1990 have double the risk of colon cancer and are four times more likely to develop rectal cancer, meaning more and more people and their families will be affected by this disease if lifesaving research is not funded.

At the GI Cancer Institute, we are working on bold new ideas to target GI cancers like colorectal cancer. Without new ideas that we can develop and prove in early-stage research, innovative practice-changing, larger scale clinical trials just won’t happen.

Our researchers, clinicians, health professionals all rely on your support to keep moving forward. But most of all, the patients and their families rely on you too. For so many, our trials represent their very last hope, when all other treatments have failed.

“I think it’s paramount that we raise awareness about the benefits of clinical trials and how important they are in the fighting against cancer.  I want to be a cancer advocate and I hope that sharing my story helps others.”

If you can give a tax-deductible donation before 30 June, you can have your donation doubled thanks to a kind philanthropist. To find out how you can help today and double your impact, visit gicancer.org.au/givetoday

About Bowel Cancer Screening

Bowel cancer tests are facilitated by the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program. It is free for every Australian between the ages of 50-74, with Australians receiving the test every two years from their 50th birthday.

The program’s aim is to detect bowel cancer in individuals early before any serious symptoms appear. The screening test is called a Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT), which detects blood in stool samples. The test does not diagnose bowel cancer, but can find tiny traces of blood in stool samples, which may be an early sign of disease. The results will indicate if a further test is needed to rule out bowel cancer.

If found early 90% of bowel cancers can be successfully treated. The FOBT screening test is crucial for early detection as it can reduce bowel cancer deaths by 15 to 25%. However, only 41% of eligible Australians participate in the program. If this number were to increase to 60%, then a further 24,800 lives could be saved by 2040.

You can learn more about the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program here.


Learn more about colorectal cancer risk factors and symptoms