Why it's important for women to have a bowel cancer test
Bowel cancer is the second most common cancer in women, but experts say many still assume it mostly affects older men.
Each year close to 7,000 Australian women are diagnosed with bowel cancer, but research shows many don’t prioritise testing.
According to Bowel Cancer Australia the disease affects men and women almost equally, and can happen at any age, but there is a common misconception that older men are more at risk.
Bowel cancer in women
Bowel cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in Australian women. It claims the lives of more than 1,700 women every year.
Bowel Cancer Australia Community Engagement Manager, Claire Annear says despite the statistics, many women don’t prioritise screening in the same way they would for other common cancers like breast and cervical cancers.
“The perception that bowel cancer screening is messy and embarrassing, as well as a fear of receiving bad news (whether founded or not), are among the top reasons many women put off screening for the disease,” Annear says.
Why get tested?
According to Bowel Cancer Australia men and women from the age of 50, and anyone with a family history of bowel cancer, are at an increased risk of bowel cancer.
Over the next decade, more than 20,000 women are estimated to lose their lives to the disease.
But the good news is that when it is found early, 90% of cases can be successfully treated.
What does a test involve?
You don’t have to visit a doctor to be tested for bowel cancer; it can be done in the privacy of your own home. There are at-home test kits (known as a Faecal Immunochemical Test or FIT), which look for blood in the stools that may not be visible to the naked eye.
The test is not messy. It involves brushing a collection stick along a stool briefly and placing it in a collection tube for two separate bowel movements.
Tests are available free to eligible Australians over 50 as part of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.
When to get tested
Women (and men) over 50 are encouraged to test for bowel cancer every one or two years from the age of 50.
But experts warn bowel cancer can affect younger people as well.
“It is really important that all women are aware of the symptoms and risk factors, and talk to their doctor if they notice something isn’t right,” says Annear.
Signs to look out for include; unusual changes to your bowel movements which persist for several weeks, abdominal pain and blood in stools.
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Experts say a healthy balanced diet low in animal fats and added sugar, and regular physical activity can help prevent bowel cancer.
As a general rule:
Aim for 30 minutes or more of physical activity (e.g. brisk walking) every day, at a pace that gets your heart rate up, but doesn’t leave you breathless.
- Plant-based foods rich in fibre like cereals, fruits and vegetables.
- Garlic, milk and calcium may help protect against bowel cancer, but more research is need.
- Red and processed meat.