Psychological distress and bowel cancer screening participation

Research Snapshots of Health Systems and Behavioural Research

What is known?

Bowel cancer is the second leading cause of cancer related deaths, but if detected early it is highly treatable. The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program sends out bowel cancer screening kits in the mail to Australians aged 50–74.

These kits help to detect early warning signs of bowel cancer. However, up to 60% of people who receive a kit do not complete it. Therefore, it is important for us to understand why people do not complete their kit, so that we can help them.

Psychological distress, including stress, anxiety and depression is known to impact health behaviours, such as cancer screening. However, we don’t know the exact nature of the relationship between mental health and health behaviours.

What is new?

We used two samples to test the relationship between psychological distress and rates of bowel cancer screening. We found that very high levels of distress are consistently linked to lower participation. Our findings indicated:

  • People who experience small increases in anxiety tend to be linked with small increase in screening participation.
  • Those with high levels of anxiety are less likely to screen.
  • Severely distressed individuals may be experiencing other conditions that impede their ability or capacity to participate.

What does this mean?

Special efforts need to be established to increase cancer screening – particularly to those experiencing extreme levels of distress.

People with mental health disorders are at a greater risk of cancer and have a worse prognosis, highlighting the great importance of screening among this population.

Mental health patients may require extra support from health professionals, (i.e., prompting, motivation and facilitation) to screen for bowel cancer – and potentially other cancers too.

Contact: Laura Anderson

Reference: Anderson LE, Ireland MJ, Myers L, Avenell C, Connaughton T, Goodwin BC. Psychological distress and bowel cancer screening participation. Psycho-Oncology. 2022. doi: 10.1002/pon.6072.

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