16 June, 2017

Why is Poo Taboo?

When it comes to poo, we tend to turn a blind eye. We choose not to acknowledge it, nor wish to test it. However poo might just save your life. That’s because performing a simple screening test on a sample of poo could make the difference between life and death…literally.

June is Bowel Cancer Awareness month. It’s an opportunity to remind us of the importance of ongoing regular bowel screening into the future, and seeing your doctor early if you have any bowel symptoms. It’s also a time to reflect on your physical activity, diet and lifestyle, including cessation of smoking and moderation of alcohol, which all impact significantly on your bowel cancer risk.

Colorectal cancer is the 2nd most common cancer and the 2nd most common cause of cancer death. Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world with 1/23 Australians developing bowel cancer over their lifetime. It is for this reason that a National screening program has been established to reduce death from bowel cancer through early detection of the disease. The National Health and Medical Research Council recommends 2 yearly bowel cancer screening in all Australians aged 50 and above.

What does bowel cancer screening involve?

A test called a Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT), performed in otherwise well individuals, detects small traces of blood in the bowel motion that are usually not visible to the naked eye. This blood can be due to a variety of causes, most importantly pre-cancerous bowel polyps or bowel cancer. The screening test is a non-invasive, simple, quick and painless test carried out in the comfort and privacy of your own home. 3 separate bowel samples, collected at home, are sent to the lab for analysis. The presence of blood is a trigger to further testing, such as a colonoscopy, to determine the source of the blood. Where polyps or cancers are discovered early, as a result of this screening test, the treatment outcomes can be excellent, with complete cure often achieved. In the absence of bowel cancer screening, when bowel cancer is diagnosed because of the presence of symptoms, it is more likely to be more advanced, with a poorer prognosis.

Despite evidence supporting the effectiveness of the humble poo test, why is it that only 37% of the population take up the opportunity to screen? Some of the reasons for resistance may be:

  1. A sense of awkwardness collecting one’s poo
  2. A case of “Head in the sand”, opting to ignore it.
  3. Time pressure and just too busy to fit another thing in.
  4. Or could the lack of media coverage be a factor….
  • Interestingly, compared with other cancers, there were far fewer celebrities championing for the cause, or announcing their diagnosis of bowel cancer, there is a far smaller media presence from colorectal advocacy groups, and there is little coverage of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.

But regardless of what the reason is, if you are over 50 and haven’t had bowel cancer screening done in the last 2 years, don’t leave it any longer. Arrange to see your doctor to have this and any other outstanding screening arranged. If you are not yet 50, and on the Australian electoral role, you will receive a special 50th birthday present in the form of a FOBT kit, posted to you compliments of the Australian Government.

Whilst the information above applies to the general population, screening recommendations can vary amongst individuals, such as testing at an even younger age for those considered at elevated risk. So please speak with your doctor, to discuss your individual risk and ensure you are doing whatever you can to lower your chances of developing bowel cancer.