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. If bowel cancer is found early, it is easier to treat. Screening may also pick up non-cancerous growths (polyps), which could become cancerous in the future.

Bowel cancer is treatable and curable, especially if it’s diagnosed early. Nearly everyone diagnosed at the earliest stage will survive bowel cancer. Taking part in bowel cancer screening is the best way to get diagnosed early.

Bowel cancer screening programmes in England, Wales and Northern Ireland invite people over the age of 60 to take part in screening. In Scotland, screening starts from age 50. We do not provide bowel cancer screening test kits or accept completed kits. 

If you have a high risk of getting bowel cancer, you may have tests at a younger age. 

Speak to your GP if you have any symptoms of a bowel problem or if you are worried about bowel cancer.

UK screening programmes

If you have a GP and you are aged 60-74 (50-74 in Scotland), you will receive a letter inviting you to take part in the bowel cancer screening programme. The letter will include a leaflet, which explains the benefits and risks of screening. You will be invited to take part in screening every two years until you reach the age of 75. The screening programmes in the UK currently use the Faecal occult blood test (FOBT).

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 bowel cancer screening helpline on 0800 707 60 60. 

Some screening centres are starting to offer a one-off test, called bowel scope screening, to men and women at the age of 55. This is on top of the home screening test that starts at the age of 60.

For more information about the screening programme in England, visit the NHS Choices website or call the bowel cancer screening helpline on 0800 707 60 60.

Scotland

You will receive an invitation to take part in bowel cancer screening every two years between the ages of 50 and 74. 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.

Over the next couple of years, screening centres will introduce a new bowel cancer screening test, which uses the faecal immunochemical test (FIT). This will replace the faecal occult blood test (FOBT).

As well as sending out bowel cancer screening tests, screening centres are trialling bowel scope screening with some people aged 59-61. They will then decide whether to roll out this screening to everyone.

For more about bowel cancer screening in Scotland visit the NHS Inform website or call the free bowel screening centre helpline on 0800 0121 833. 

Wales

If you are aged between 60 and 74, you will be invited to take part in bowel cancer screening every two years.

For more information about screening in Wales, visit the Bowel Screening Wales website or call their helpline on 0800 294 3370.

Northern Ireland

If you are aged between 60 and 74, you will be invited to take part in bowel cancer screening every two years. 

For more information on screening in Northern Ireland, visit the Northern Ireland Cancer Screening Programmes website or call the helpline on 0800 015 2514.

Benefits and risks

The sooner bowel cancer is found, 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 a cure. 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.

Faecal occult blood test (FOBT)

The FOBT tests for hidden blood in your bowel movements (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.

The home test is quick and easy to do. You use the kit to take small samples of your poo on three separate days. You then post the kit back to the screening centre in the pre-paid envelope. The test kit includes an instruction booklet, which shows you what to do and tells you how quickly to send the test back.

You can see detailed instructions for how to do the test in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Faecal immunochemical test (FIT)

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.

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.

Read more on how bowel cancer is diagnosed and treated.

Bowel scope screening

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.

This is a one-off test offered to some people at age 55 in England and around age 60 in Scotland. The screening is being rolled out in England and should be available to everyone by 2020. In Scotland, bowel scope screening is available in some areas before a decision is made about whether to make it available to everyone.

The NHS Choices website has more information on bowel scope screening.

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, or
  • 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

If you live in Scotland, check out our screening resources for people with learning disabilities and their carers.

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 2016. Due for review March 2018