Greater awareness of key bowel cancer risk factors needed, new research finds

A new study has found a need to increase public awareness of key bowel cancer risk factors, including excess alcohol consumption and having diabetes, in a bid to help reduce Tasmania’s high level of bowel cancer cases.

University of Tasmania researchers have conducted the first large-scale survey across the state to identify gaps in public awareness of bowel cancer risk factors, symptoms and screening.

Tasmania has the highest levels of bowel cancer in Australia.

Researchers surveyed 3703 Tasmanians and found while nine out of 10 people were aware that having a close relative with bowel cancer increased their chances of developing the disease, only five out of 10 or fewer knew that low physical activity levels, excess alcohol consumption and having diabetes increased their risk.

The study, funded by Cancer Council Tasmania, also found:

  • Most respondents were aware that blood in a stool was a possible sign of bowel cancer, but more than half were not confident they would be able to notice a bowel cancer symptom
  • One in three participants did not know the starting age for the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program is 50 years.

“We know that Tasmania has the highest levels of bowel cancer in Australia, but we’re not sure why,” public health researcher Dr Simone Lee, from the University’s Centre for Rural Health, said.

“If bowel cancer is found early, over 90% of patients can be successfully treated and unlike other cancers, there is a lot we can do to avoid a diagnosis. It is a highly preventable and treatable condition if caught early.

“How aware Tasmanians are about bowel cancer risk factors, symptoms and screening is not clear and was the main reason we undertook the survey.

“Limited awareness of established bowel cancer risk factors such as low physical activity levels and increased alcohol consumption are concerning but not surprising.

“While most people would say that moving more and drinking less alcohol is good for their health, they do not necessarily make the connection with bowel cancer prevention.”

Cancer Council Tasmania CEO Penny Egan said studies such as this are important by providing a greater understanding of where focus needs to be around increasing awareness of risk factors with bowel cancer and subsequently how to reduce the risk.

“If detected early, the chance of successful treatment and long-term survival improves significantly. Detection and treatment at Stage 1 results in a 98% chance of relative survival after five years,” Mrs Egan said.

“Between 2013 and 2017, Tasmanians had the highest age-standardised incidence rate for bowel cancer in the nation.

“But the five-year survival rate for all Tasmanians with colorectal cancer diagnosed in 2013-2017 was 71.6%, which showed marked improvement from the 46.6% seen for colorectal cancers diagnosed in 1988-1992.

“One of the reasons for increased rates of detection can be attributed to the high number of Tasmanians who participate in the national Bowel Cancer Screening program.

“Tasmania has the highest participation rate at 49% – equal with South Australia. But this also indicates that 51% of those invited to participate are not taking the test.”

In a further research partnership with the Centre for Rural Health, Cancer Council Tasmania has provided a grant to Dr Kehinde Obamiro towards the co-design of an educational intervention to improve bowel cancer awareness and screening in a rural community.

“Since its establishment in 1995, Cancer Council Tasmania has provided over $6.2 million towards cancer research,” Mrs Egan said.

“All the funds have been provided to Tasmanian researchers and towards clinical trials at the RHH and LGH.”

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