Not all bowel symptoms are caused by cancer. Your GP or specialist may send you for tests to see what is causing your symptoms.
Your doctors should explain why you are having the tests, what is involved and if there are any costs.
What you need to know
Reasons for tests
Your GP will examine you and send you for tests before you see a specialist. These initial tests are to see if your symptoms are caused by cancer or by something else.
If you do have a cancer, the specialist you see will probably send you for tests to find out more about it. This includes finding out the type of cells the cancer started in and whether it has spread.
Tests for bowel cancer
Tests used to diagnose and assess bowel cancer can include:
- immunochemical faecal occult blood test
- digital rectal examination
- virtual colonoscopy
- blood test
- CT scan
- MRI scan
- PET scan.
You may need to fast, have a special diet or bowel preparation before some of these tests.
Some of these tests and procedures may be used to monitor bowel cancer during treatment.
Biopsies for bowel cancer
One test that is done for many cancers is a biopsy. This is when a small piece of tissue is taken from the lump or area that might be a cancer. A pathologist looks at the tissue under a microscope to see if it is a cancer.
Biopsies for bowel cancer are often taken during a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy.
Mutation testing in bowel cancer
Some bowel cancers have gene mutations which affect how they can be treated. The two most common are KRAS and BRAF.
A sample of cancer tissue can be tested to see if it has any mutations. The results can be used in treatment planning, as some targeted therapies work better in people with certain mutations.
Mutation testing is generally used in people with advanced bowel cancer.
What to ask or talk about
Preparing for tests
Going for tests can make some people nervous, but knowing what to expect can help.
Your GP or specialist should tell you why you need each test and what it involves. Use our checklists to help you know what to ask.
Sometimes you need to contact the place where you are having the test for more information. This can include how to prepare for the test, how much it will cost and what you will get back from Medicare and your private health fund.
Ask how long it will take before you hear the results of the test.
Getting test results
It is normal to feel anxious when you are waiting for test results.
Your GP or specialist should tell you when the results will be ready and how you will find out about them. Usually you need to make an appointment to get the results.
It is a good idea to take someone with you when you go for this appointment.