Cancer figures show Australians risking their health

Australians are needlessly risking their health, if the latest statistics from the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP) are anything to go by.

Figures released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare for the 2021-22 period show that there was just a 40 per cent uptake in the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP) kits.

Which could be a fatal mistake, because early diagnosis and treatment saves lives. Patients with stage 1 bowel cancer have a 98.6 per cent five-year survival rate. The five-year survival rate falls to just 13.4 per cent with stage four cancer.

One in 25 people assessed after a positive screening test are diagnosed with cancer. If only 40 per cent of the tests are being completed, that’s a lot of people going undiagnosed.

Stagnant cancer screening rates

Despite the publicity and the kits being free, participation rates have remained stagnant.

The latest participation rate figures are similar to the previous rolling two-year period (2020–2021) of 40.9 per cent.

However, the screening program has dramatically increased the overall five-year survival rate. For the period 1990-94, it was at about 55 per cent. For 2015-19, it was above 70 per cent. An estimated 11.4 million screening tests have been completed since the program began in 2006.

Sadly, participants who identified as being of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin, those who lived in very remote areas and those who lived in low socioeconomic areas, all had higher rates of positive screens, but lower rates of follow-up diagnostic assessment, and a longer median time between a positive screen and assessment.

I feel qualified to write this story. I took the test in 2020 and it came back positive. What followed was 12 months of treatment including two surgeries, chemotherapy and another colonoscopy. I was lucky, it was caught at stage 1, which has an above 90 per cent survival rate. But it would not have been caught without the test as I had no symptoms. And I had double my luck as my five-centimetre tumour should have breached the bowel, which dramatically decreases your chances of survival.

Screening program

The NBCSP sends screening kits through the mail every two years to Australians aged 50 to 74.

In a move designed to reflect the fact that more younger people are being diagnosed with bowel cancer, from 1 July people aged 45 to 49 will be eligible to access a free screening test kit every two years. You can request a screening kit at or by calling the National Cancer Screening Register on 1800 627 701.

If you have lost or disposed of the test, you can ask your GP about a free kit, you can order a new one here, or they are available through your pharmacist.

If you do not return the test, a reminder will be sent six months later. The tests do have an expiry date, which is printed on the packaging.

According to Cancer Council Victoria, you can reduce your risk of dying from bowel cancer by up to a third if you complete the test every two years.

Bowel cancer symptoms include:

  • bleeding from your bottom or any signs of blood after you go to the toilet.
  • a change in bowel habits such as constipation or diarrhoea
  • abdominal pain or bloating
  • weight loss for no obvious reason, or loss of appetite
  • symptoms of anaemia, including fatigue, weakness or breathlessness.

Have you taken the test? If not, why not? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

Also read: Cancer rates in Australia are the world’s worst

Jan Fisher
Jan Fisher
Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.


  1. I was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2009. I had been visiting a doctor at a men’s clinic for about 3 years and every year the doctor asked me if I wanted to do the test. I said no for the first two years and then did one in the 3rd year, 2009. It was positive. I had the operation, my surgeon was confident he had removed the cancer in its entirety and I recovered fully with no chemo or radiotherapy.
    I would urge everyone to have this test if it is offered. It honestly can mean the difference between life and death.

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