Bowel cancer screening

Between 2017 and 2020, a national bowel screening programme will become available to everyone aged 60 to 74 who is eligible for publicly funded healthcare in New Zealand.

Key points

  • The national bowel screening programme started in the Hutt Valley and Wairarapa District Health Board (DHB) areas in July 2017, with the roll-out expected to be completed in 2020.
  • The national programme follows a pilot programme by the Waitemata DHB. You can find out when the programme will start in your DHB. You will be contacted within two years of it starting in your DHB.
  • A pilot is a small-scale study to find out what works and what needs improving, and to identify any problems with a programme before it is used on a larger population.
  • The information from the Waitemata pilot programme has been used to plan the national programme, eg, the pilot screening age starting at 50 has been changed to 60 in the national programme.

Why is bowel cancer screening important?

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world. More than 3000 New Zealanders are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year and more than 1200 die from it.

Bowel cancer occurs when normal cells on the inside of your bowel become abnormal and grow out of control. These cells can turn into a polyp (growth) and some polyps may grow into a cancer over time. There may be no warning signs of bowel cancer in the early stages.

Regular bowel screening of people who do not have any symptoms of bowel cancer provides an opportunity to find bowel cancer early. This means it can be treated sooner and the long-term outcome is likely to be better.

Find out more about bowel cancer symptoms, causes, diagnosis and treatment.

Bowel screening is for people who don’t have any symptoms of bowel cancer. If you have any bowel symptoms that concern you, talk to your doctor straight away.

Why is bowel cancer screening only for 60- to 74-year-olds?

In the pilot, about 80% of cancers detected were in people aged 60 to 74 years. This means screening is being offered to those most likely to have bowel cancer or an advanced polyp detected by a follow-up colonoscopy.

As a colonoscopy is an invasive procedure that carries some risk, it is important to ensure that the benefits of screening outweigh any potential harm. You doctor will help you decide if a colonoscopy should be carried out.

What will happen when I have my bowel cancer screening?

  • When it is your turn to be screened, you will receive a letter inviting you to take part. You will also be sent a kit that allows you to collect a faecal (poo) sample at home. It includes a tube that you send by freepost with your poo sample inside.
  • The sample will be tested in a laboratory for the presence of tiny amounts of blood that you can’t see when you look at it. If blood is found it may be an early warning sign that something is wrong with your bowel.
  • If there are any concerns with your sample, you will be notified and booked in to have a colonoscopy.

Learn more

National bowel screening programme or phone 0800 924 432 
Information about bowel screening in other languages

References

  1. National bowel screening programme National Screening Unit, New Zealand, 2017
  2. Bowel screening – from pilot to national programme Ministry of Health, 2017
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Last reviewed: 20 Jun 2017