STUDY: bowel cancer symptoms continue to be dismissed

A NATIONAL study of Australians diagnosed with bowel cancer - the country's second biggest cancer killer - reveals three quarters of respondents presented to their GP with symptoms, yet one in five felt their symptoms were not taken seriously.  

Bowel Cancer Australia chief executive Mr Julien Wiggins said the findings from the My Bowel Cancer…My Voice survey,i released to coincide with Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, point to the need to ensure all Australians make symptoms a priority and GPs facilitate timely investigations and diagnosis.  

"We know Australians hold GPs in high regard,ii however people need to feel confident knowing their symptoms or concerns will be taken seriously," Mr Wiggins said.

 "Timely diagnosis is critical if we are to improve patient outcomes. We need to reduce the number of repeat GP visits and hospital emergency presentations prior to a bowel cancer diagnosis," he added.  

Results from the My Bowel Cancer…My Voice survey of nearly 300 bowel cancer patients found:  

• Nearly 1 in 5 (18%) of respondents were told their symptoms were related to something else, including IBS and haemorrhoids

• 2 in 5 (41%) of respondents were investigated for another condition prior to their bowel cancer diagnosis

• Almost one in five respondents (19%) felt they were initially misdiagnosed

• 19 per cent of respondents were told they were too young to have bowel cancer  

The researchers also heard from new mums, who were initially told their symptoms were related to their pregnancy.

Associate Professor Graham Newstead AM, Bowel Cancer Australia Director and Colorectal Surgeon, said, "It is important to be suspicious of symptoms. If they are suggestive of bowel cancer, then referral for colonoscopy within four weeks is recommended.  

"Our research shows more than half of respondents had late stage disease at the time of diagnosis, when bowel cancer is more difficult to treat and survival rates begin to sharply decline - 50% (Stage III); and 16% per cent by Stage IV."  

Timely diagnosis could be improved through increased GP awareness of symptoms suggestive of bowel cancer as well as adherence to investigation and referral recommendations in the optimal care pathway as our survey results showed:  

  • 40 per cent of respondents required two or more visits to the GP before being referred to a specialist
  • 9 per cent of respondents required five or more visits to their GP before being referred to a specialist
  • 7 per cent of respondents presented at hospital emergency departments

"Nobody knows your body better than you, so be aware of symptoms, act on any changes, and if something still doesn't feel quite right, be persistent until you are confident that bowel cancer has been ruled out," A/Prof Newstead said.  

"Don't be afraid to seek a second opinion. Take steps to disprove the presence of bowel cancer rather than assuming it isn't and thinking symptoms will go away," he added.  

The June, Bowel Cancer Australia is calling on all Australians to join them in championing what matters most to people affected by bowel cancer as well as empowering men and women of all ages with the tools and knowledge to be advocates for their own health.  

For more information about bowel cancer and Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, visit or call the Bowel Cancer Australia Helpline on 1800 555 494.

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