A different kind of Pooh Sticks that could save your life - bowel cancer screening

Those in contact with young people may be familiar with the acronym FOMO. For those not in the know, FOMO stands for Fear of Missing Out. But very few people will be familiar with the acronym FOFO – Fear of Finding Out – and the serious problem it can pose to your health.

FOFO, also known as health information avoidance, refers to a propensity amongst part of the population to avoid health testing for fear of finding out they have a serious medical condition that will then require medical treatment.

This may help explain why less than 50 per cent of free bowel cancer screening tests – sent by the federal government to those between the ages of 50 and 74 since 2006 – are returned for lab analysis.

To be sure, there are other reasons for not returning these potentially life-saving tests, such as the belief that nothing is wrong, being time poor, having other priorities, no family history of bowel cancer, or the old chestnut, I couldn’t be arsed (pun intended).

But as recent studies have shown, fear is an important factor that can make for irrational decisions.

A recent study at the University of Florida recognises that there can be a gulf between the medical profession extolling the good news that early detection means earlier intervention and better health results, and the psychological terrain those suffering FOFO might inhabit.

While facts certainly play a major role in making the case for screening and early detection of conditions like bowel cancer, the impediments to testing are often psychological rather than simply factual.

Specialist Gastrointestinal Pathologist, Dr Nick Musgrave, notes “It’s well established that the stage of bowel cancer at diagnosis is the biggest determinant of outcome and many early cancers are curable. So we want to understand what will encourage someone to complete the faecal occult blood test so that they will get a diagnosis early.”

The University of Florida researchers found when one group was asked to list three reasons for knowing and three for not knowing about their risk of developing heart disease, only 28 per cent opted to remain in ignorance of their risk, while in the control group, who were asked simply to list eight facts about heart disease, 55 per cent didn’t want to know their health risk.

What this suggests – which is valuable for broader campaigns around pathology testing – is that a list of frightening facts by themselves are not sufficient to convince people to change behaviour. Weighing up the pros and cons in a considered way, the study suggests, leads to a more favourable attitude toward testing, which in turn leads to better health outcomes.

We thought we’d put that theory into practice here by listing some common objections, laying out the pros of taking part in the National Bowel Cancer Screening program, and allowing you to fill out the cons. Let’s see how the case for testing stacks up.

Why should I do the bowel cancer screening test? I have no family history of bowel cancer

Pro: Most people who develop bowel cancer have no family history of it so that’s no indicator of whether you’ll develop bowel cancer.

I live a healthy lifestyle so don’t anticipate I’d have a problem

Pro: While bowel cancer risk is increased by factors such as smoking, excess alcohol intake, unhealthy diet, and lack of exercise, ageing and other factors such as being overweight also have a bearing.

I have no symptoms of bowel cancer

Pro: the National Bowel Cancer Screening Kit can detect bowel cancer before it forms, and before there are symptoms, giving you a massive treatment advantage. Bowel cancer kills eighty Australians a week, but most could have been avoided by early detection.

What if I find out I do have bowel cancer?

Pro: The good news is, with early detection the cancers can be successfully removed, with up to 90 per cent chance of survival. If left untreated, cancers can develop and spread to other areas of the body.

What do I gain/sacrifice by taking the test?

Pro: the test is free, quick and can be done in the comfort and privacy of your own home. Test results are returned in a couple of weeks. The test provides piece of mind and early detection provides an enormous advantage in terms of treatment.


*Image credit: http://pooh-sticks.com/