More than 8 million Australians (almost one in three people) will be in the "crosshairs" of bowel cancer in just 10 years.
That's the finding of a disturbing new report released on Monday by leading social demographer Bernard Salt, who says by 2026, 4.6 million baby boomers and 4 million Gen Xers "will be subjected to a bowel cancer lottery" purely because of their age.
"Bowel cancer attacks the middle-aged with progressive lethality, with rates leaping tenfold between the ages of 50 and 79," he says.
The report examines the rising threat of bowel cancer in our ageing population. Developed by KPMG Demographics and commissioned by Bowel Cancer Australia, it reveals bowel cancer strikes hardest among rural communities, where the 50 to 79 age group comprise at least a third and up to half of the local population.
"The analysis highlights how localised bowel cancer can be and demonstrates the need for public health programs to be based not only on age but also geography," Bowel Cancer Australia chief executive Julien Wiggins said.
He says the federal government's age-based national screening program had significant problems. Positive tests require further investigation by colonoscopy within 30 days, but the government's response has been painfully slow and waiting times for tests are too long.
"Even before the program's scheduled full implementation in 2020 – almost two decades after it was first piloted – colonoscopy waiting times in the public health system have exceeded recommended time frames.
"The reporting and publishing of colonoscopy waiting times on the My Hospitals website is long overdue," Mr Wiggins said. "Bowel cancer patients require timely access to surgery, treatment and cancer support services. However, these are not always available locally, which can adversely impact patient outcomes."
He says the frustrating aspect is that early detection saves lives. "The unique thing about bowel cancer is that you can catch it before it starts. The screening tests can detect blood in the stool that is invisible to the naked eye."
Wiggins says he would love to see the "full implementation" of the screening brought forward as soon as possible so more lives can be saved. This would mean people are screened every two years from age 50.
Wiggins also wants to see far greater awareness of the disease that is Australia's second biggest cancer killer.
"We all need to get over the yuck factor of talking about poo and pay more attention to our bowel health."
Bowel cancer survivor Stephanie Bansemer-Brown says she wishes she'd paid more attention to her gut instinct so she would not have had to go through her ordeal.
"I had symptoms for two years before I was diagnosed in 2012," says the Melbourne mother, who was 42 when her battle began.
Banse-Brown, of Carnegie, noticed blood in her stools, had bloating and felt "really tired". After a year of suffering, she went to a doctor who told her she probably had haemorrhoids and not to worry.
"I went about my normal business for another year and when the symptoms didn't go away I went back to the doctor and asked for a colonoscopy."
Tests confirmed she had stage three cancer, requiring surgery to remove a large section of her bowel. She then underwent six months of "intensive chemotherapy".
"My message to everyone is that you know your own body better than anyone. If you feel something's not right, trust your instincts and talk to your doctor."