Cancer: what tests to have and when to have them

Bowel cancer screening
Your risk of developing bowel cancer increases with age and Cancer Council recommends everyone takes a screening test every two years from the age of 50.

The National Bowel Cancer Screening program uses the faecal occult blood test (FOBT) to detect hidden blood in bowel motions. People without symptoms aged 50, 55 and 65 are eligible to participate. From 1 July 2013, people turning 60 will be included; people turning 70 will be added in 2015.

Participants receive a test kit in the mail, take samples at home and mail them to a pathologist for analysis. If blood is detected, further tests may be required.

The Australian Government has committed to expanding the program to everyone 50 and over, every two years, but in the meantime we recommend you get tested every two years.

Your GP may provide you with a test kit, or can refer you to a pathology service, where the test will be carried out. Test kits are available on the internet and from some pharmacies and private health funds.However, you should discuss the use of FOBT kits with your GP before you use one.

You are at greater risk of bowel cancer, and should discuss your risk with your GP, if you have: 

  • a previous history of polyps in the bowel
  • a previous history of bowel cancer
  • chronic inflammatory bowel disease (eg. Crohn’s disease)
  • a strong family history of bowel cancer
  • increased insulin levels or type 2 diabetes

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Prostate cancer
Prostate cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in Australian men and the second highest cause of cancer death in men after lung cancer.

The most important risk factor for prostate cancer is ageing. Men with a family history of prostate cancer are also at higher risk of developing the disease.

As with most cancers, potentially harmful prostate cancers are easier to treat when detected early. Unfortunately, however, there is no simple, accurate test for early detection. A blood test to check your levels of prostate specific antigen (PSA) can be used as a guide to diagnosis. A doctor may also suspect prostate cancer is present through a digital rectal examination (DRE).

Neither the PSA test nor DRE can distinguish between prostate cancers that are aggressive and life-threatening, and those that grow too slowly to cause problems in the patient’s lifetime.

So, while testing apparently healthy men may offer a longer life to those with aggressive cancers, it may harm men with indolent cancers by exposing them to unnecessary treatments that cause side effects such as incontinence and impotence.

If you are concerned about prostate cancer, talk to your GP. Your GP can talk you through your concerns in relation to your individual circumstances and assist you in weighing up issues such as your age, family history and the risks and benefits of PSA and DRE testing.

Breast cancer screening
The biggest risk factors for developing breast cancer are being a woman and getting older.

Mammograms are low dose X-rays of a woman’s breasts and are performed on women without any symptoms of breast cancer.

Women between 50 and 69 years old should have a free mammogram every two years with Breastscreen Australia. If you’re between 40 and 49, or over 70, you can also access a free mammogram if you wish.

If you have symptoms, or are worried about your family history of breast cancer, you should speak to your GP.

Cervical cancer screening
The Pap smear is a quick and simple test used to check for changes to the cells of the cervix which may lead to cervical cancer. A doctor or nurse takes a sample of cells from the surface of the cervix which are then analysed.

All women between the ages of 18 and 70 should have a Pap smear every two years.

Most doctors have an established recall system to notify you when your next Pap smear is due. Most state health departments have established Pap smear registries which provide a safety net recall system although you can opt out.

Vaccines are now available which prevent the types of HPV infection that cause most cervical cancers. These vaccines are most effective when given before a female becomes sexually active, hence why they are rolled out in schools.

Pap smears are still necessary for women who have had the HPV vaccine.

Click NEXT to find out for which symptoms you should be aware 

Awareness of cancer symptoms
Screening is not 100 per cent accurate and only a handful of cancer types can be screened for. It’s vital you also learn to be aware of what is normal for your body and to spot anything unusual. 

Both men and women should look out for: 

  • lumps, sores or ulcers that don’t heal
  • coughs that don’t go away, show blood, or a hoarseness that hangs around
  • weight loss that can’t be explained
  • moles that have changed shape, size or colour, or bleed, or an inflamed skin sore that hasn’t healed
  • blood in a bowel motion
  • persistent changes in toilet habits
  • fatigue

Men should also look for:

  • unusual changes in your testicles – changes in shape,
  • consistency or lumpiness (though testicular cancer is more common in men under 45)
  • urinary problems or changes in habits

Women should also look for:

  • unusual changes in your breasts—lumps, thickening,
  • unusual discharge, nipples that suddenly turn inwards,
  • changes in shape, colour or unusual pain
  • any loss of blood, even a few spots between periods or after they stop
  • persistent abdominal pain or bloating
  • pain during sexual intercourse

All of these symptoms are often related to more common, less serious health problems. However, if you notice any unusual changes, or these symptoms persist, visit your doctor.

For more information on all types of cancer, visit or call Cancer Council Helpline on 13 11 20.

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