Issue addressed Bowel cancer is Australia's second biggest cancer killer. Yet, despite the existence of a free national bowel-screening program, participation in this program remains low. The aim of the present study was to understand the current factors contributing to this trend to help inform future strategies to increase participation. Methods Eight focus groups (n≤61 in total) were conducted with participants aged 45 years and over from metropolitan and regional New South Wales (NSW). Discussions canvassed awareness, knowledge, attitudes and beliefs regarding bowel cancer and screening, and explored how these factors influenced decisions to screen. Results The low public profile of bowel cancer compared with other cancers, together with poor knowledge of its prevalence and treatability, has contributed to a low perception of risk in the community. Minimal understanding of the often-asymptomatic presentation of bowel cancer and the role of screening in prevention has appeared to compromise the perceived value of screening. In addition, confusion regarding when, and how often, individuals should screen was apparent. Knowledge of bowel cancer and screening, and its role in motivating intention to screen, emerged as a dominant theme in the data. Conclusions The present study highlights specific knowledge gaps and confusion with regard to bowel cancer and screening. Addressing these gaps through the provision of clear, coordinated information may shift attitudes to screening and increase participation. So what? Given the Australian Government's recent commitment to expand the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program, insight into what is driving current perceptions, attitudes and subsequent participation in bowel cancer screening is crucial to the development and targeting of new approaches and initiatives.