Help us to stop bowel cancer

Bowel cancer screening

Screening is a way of testing healthy people to see if they show any early signs of cancer.

Bowel cancer screening can save lives. Screening aims to detect bowel cancer at an early stage, when treatment has the best chance of working. The test can also find polyps (non-cancerous growths), which might develop into cancer. Polyps can easily be removed, to lower the risk of bowel cancer.

Bowel Cancer UK do not provide bowel cancer screening test kits or accept completed kits.

What is bowel cancer screening?

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland people over the age of 60 are invited to take part in bowel cancer screening. In Scotland, screening starts from age 50. You will be invited to take part in screening every two years until you reach the age of 75.

The national screening programme uses a home test called a Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT), which looks for hidden blood in poo. The test will be posted to you, so you can do it in the privacy of your own home.

Using the cardboard sticks provided, you will be asked to smear two small samples of poo onto a special screening card. You will need to do this three times over a two week period (10 days in Northern Ireland and Scotland).

You will be given a self-sealing, freepost envelope to send the card back to the screening centre. Full instructions and a more detailed information leaflet will be sent to you with your invitation and test.

UK bowel cancer screening programmes

At the moment, the bowel cancer screening programme in every UK country uses the FOBT test.

England

  • If you are aged between 60 and 74, you will be invited to take part in bowel cancer screening every two years.
  • If you are aged 75 or over, you can ask for a screening test by calling the free bowel cancer screening helpline on 0800 707 60 60.
  • Call the screening helpline on 0800 707 60 60 or visit NHS Choices for more information about bowel screening in England.
  • Bowel scope screening is another part of the national bowel cancer screening programme in England. The test is gradually being introduced, and will eventually invite all men and women in England aged 55 to take part.
  • Bowel scope screening involves using a thin, flexible tube with a camera on the end to look inside the lower part of your bowel and your back passage (rectum). This is called a flexible sigmoidoscopy. The test looks for, and removes, any non-cancerous growths (polyps) that could develop into cancer over time.The NHS Choices website has more information on bowel scope screening.
  • Download our leaflet and poster about bowel screening in England.

Scotland

  • If you are aged between 50 and 74, you will be invited to take part in bowel cancer screening every two years.
  • If you are aged 75 or over, you can ask for a bowel cancer screening test by calling the free bowel screening centre helpline on 0800 0121 833.
  • Call the screening helpline on 0800 0121 833 or visit NHS Inform  for more information about bowel screening in Scotland.
  • Download our poster about bowel screening in Scotland.

Wales

  • If you are aged between 60 and 74, you will be invited to take part in bowel cancer screening every two years.
  • Call the screening helpline on 0800 294 3370 or visit Bowel Screening Wales for more information about bowel screening in Wales.
  • Download our poster about bowel screening in Wales (also available in Welsh). 

 Northern Ireland

  • If you are aged between 60 and 74, you will be invited to take part in bowel cancer screening every two years.
  • Call the screening helpline on 0800 015 2514 or visit the Northern Ireland Cancer Screening website for more information about bowel screening in Northern Ireland.
  • Download our poster about bowel screening in Northern Ireland.

Benefits and risks of bowel cancer screening

The sooner bowel cancer is diagnosed, the easier it is to treat. But no screening test is 100 per cent accurate.

It is your choice whether to take part in the screening programme. Some of the benefits and risks of bowel cancer screening are listed here.

Benefits

  • Taking part in bowel cancer screening lowers your risk of dying from bowel cancer.
  • Screening can pick up cancers at an early stage, when there is a good chance of successful treatment. If bowel cancer is diagnosed at the earliest stage, more than nine in ten people will be successfully treated.
  • Screening can find non-cancerous growths (polyps) in the bowel that may develop into cancer in the future. Removing these polyps can reduce your risk of getting bowel cancer.

Risks

  • Cancer may be missed if it was not bleeding when you took the test. The screening test works by finding traces of blood, which may be from a cancer.
  • Screening may give a false positive result. This means that you may get an abnormal result when you don’t have cancer. Other medical problems and some food and medicines may give a false positive result. This can cause worry and can lead to other tests, such as a colonoscopy. Your screening test will come with information about what may affect the test results.
  • Bowel cancer can develop in the two years between your screening tests. Speak to your GP if you notice any symptoms or are worried about bowel cancer at any time.

Getting the results

You will get your test results in about two weeks.

Most people have a normal result, which means that no blood was found in the sample. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have or won’t get bowel cancer so you should still see your GP if you have any symptoms. You will receive another test in two years.

If the result isn’t clear, you may need to do the test again.

If the test finds blood in your sample, you will be invited to a local screening centre to talk about your results. This doesn’t mean that you definitely have cancer. The bleeding could be caused by a non-cancerous growth or another health problem. You will be offered more tests, such as a colonoscopy, to find out what is causing the bleeding.

Faecal immunochemical test (FIT)

Over the next few years, a new bowel screening test will replace the current FOBT in some of the UK screening programmes.

Like the FOBT, FIT tests for hidden blood in your poo. It can’t diagnose bowel cancer but if it shows blood in your poo, you will be invited to your local screening centre to talk about having more tests.

FIT is more reliable than FOBT because your diet and medicines are unlikely to affect the results. If you don’t have bowel cancer, you are less likely to get an abnormal result (a false positive) with FIT. Another benefit is that you only need one poo sample.

FIT is due to replace FOBT in Scotland in 2017 and England in 2018. Wales will also change to the new test over the next few years. We don't yet know if the new test will be introduced in Northern Ireland. 

Private screening

Some people who don’t have any symptoms and don’t fit the criteria for NHS screening choose to pay for a private test. Testing kits are available from pharmacies or from private healthcare companies. If you have any symptoms, you should visit your GP.

The self-test kits you buy over the counter from pharmacies vary in quality, so the results could be misleading. We can’t recommend or comment on individual tests without a full review by independent experts. In the meantime, we recommend you speak to your GP.

Some private companies offer bowel cancer screening, where the samples are tested in a laboratory and the results sent to you. If you are thinking about paying for a private screening test, or your health insurance company offers you a test, ask the company what care or support they offer after you get the test results. They should also tell you how accurate their test is.  If the results aren’t clear or if they find blood in your sample, you will either need to visit your GP or get a referral for further tests.

The NHS in England has written a leaflet called Thinking about having a private screening test?.

Screening for people at high risk

If you have a high risk of getting bowel cancer, you can ask your GP about screening. This is not the same as the national bowel cancer screening programme. The most common test for people at high risk is a colonoscopy.

You may have screening tests at a younger age if you have:

  • a genetic condition that increases your risk of bowel cancer, such as Lynch syndrome or FAP,
  • a strong family history of bowel cancer,
  • ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease, 
  • a condition called acromegaly, where the body produces too much growth hormone.

You may also have ongoing tests if you have had treatment for bowel cancer or non-cancerous growths in the bowel (polyps).

 

More information

Bowel Screening Wales
Information on the bowel cancer screening programme in Wales.

Northern Ireland Cancer Screening Programmes
Information on the bowel cancer screening programme in Northern Ireland.

NHS Choices
Information on the bowel cancer screening programme in England.

NHS Inform
Information on the bowel cancer screening programme in Scotland.

 

Updated March 2017. Due for review March 2019. 

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