Bowel cancer screening has an exceptionally favourable benefit-to-harm balance, according to new research published in Public Health Research & Practice, a journal of the Sax Institute.
This information comes from a comprehensive review of the benefits, harms and cost-effectiveness of cancer screening in Australia. It was written by senior author Karen Canfell, Chair of the Cancer Screening and Immunisation Committee at the Cancer Council. It used quantitative evidence and the most recent estimates.
It found that Australia’s screening programs for breast, cervical and colorectal cancers are all cost-effective, with benefits substantially outweighing harms for the latter two cancers.
Colorectal cancer, also known as bowel cancer, occurs when malignant cancer cells grow in the wall of the large bowel, including the large intestine and rectum.
The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program is free for Australians aged 50-74. It uses a screening test called a Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT), which determines whether a person needs to have a colonoscopy to rule out colorectal cancer.
Screening is particularly important for colorectal cancer as it often develops without early warning signs. When detected early, it is easier to cure than when it is detected at a later stage. In fact, when detected early, colorectal cancer is one of the most curable types of cancer and generally responds well to treatment.
However, in 2016-17 only 41% of people who received the test kit for screening participated in the program. Women had higher participation than men, with a 43% participation rate compared to 39%. Participation rates were highest for people aged 70-74.
In 2018, an estimated 17,004 people were diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and there were over an estimated 4,100 deaths. Around 69.4% of people with colorectal cancer live for more than five years past their initial diagnosis.