Beating bowel cancer together

Bowel cancer screening

The bowel screening programme helps to spot bowel cancer before symptoms start, when it’s most treatable. A screening kit will be sent to you in the post if you’re within the age range for the screening programme and registered with a GP. 

This page will explain what the screening test is, how to do the test and when you'll receive the test.

What is bowel cancer screening? 

The bowel cancer screening programmes uses a test called a faecal immunochemical test (FIT). For the test, you’ll collect a small amount of poo. This is sent to a lab where they’ll test for blood in your poo.  

Screening can also help to find polyps (non-cancerous growths) which may be growing in the bowel. Polyps can become bowel cancer over time, screening can help to find them so they can be removed before they do.  

When will I receive the screening test? 

The age at which you’ll start to receive this test in the post is different depending on where you live in the UK:

Bowel cancer screening in England 
  • If you’re aged between 54 and 74, you’ll be invited to take part in bowel cancer screening every two years. The age that people are invited to take part is gradually being extended to include people aged 50-53. This means you may get sent a test before you turn 54 
  • If you're aged 75 or over, you can ask for a screening test by calling the free bowel cancer screening helpline on 0800 707 60 60 
Bowel cancer screening in Scotland 
  • If you're aged between 50 and 74, you'll be invited to take part in bowel cancer screening every two years 
  • If you're 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 
Bowel cancer screening in Wales 
  • If you’re aged between 51 and 74, you'll be invited to take part in bowel cancer screening every two years. The age that people are invited to take part is gradually being extended to include people aged 50. This means you may get sent a test before you turn 51 
  • If you’re 75 or over, you’re currently not able to self-refer back into the programme. If you spot any symptoms of bowel cancer speak to your GP and ask about an at-home test
Bowel cancer screening in Northern Ireland 
  • If you're aged between 60 and 74, you'll be invited to take part in bowel cancer screening every two years 
  • If you're aged 75 or over, you're currently not able to self-refer back into the programme. If you spot any symptoms of bowel cancer speak to your GP and ask about an at-home test

Bowel cancer is more common in people over the age of 50, but it can affect anyone of any age. If you’re below the screening age and are worried you may have symptoms of bowel cancer, go to see your GP. They may give you an at-home test, known as a symptomatic FIT. This is similar to the bowel cancer screening test — it also looks for blood in your poo, but it’s only given if you have symptoms of bowel cancer. 

Symptoms of bowel cancer include:
  • Bleeding from your bottom 
  • Blood in your poo 
  • A change in your pooing habits. You might be going more or less often, or have diarrhoea or constipation that might come and go 
  • Losing weight but you’re not sure why 
  • A pain or lump in your tummy 

We don't send out bowel cancer screening test kits or accept completed kits. You can find the contact details for your local screening programme at the bottom of this page. 

How do I do the test? 

The test kit that you receive in the post will come with full instructions on how to complete the test and send it back. 

Before you start:

  • Read the instructions included with your test kit
  • Check the label. Make sure that the label on the test has your name and date of birth on it. If not, write it on in pen. You may also be asked to write on the date that you do the test
  • Find something to catch your poo. You could use a clean, empty plastic container such as an ice cream or margarine tub. If you don’t have a container, you could cover your hand with toilet paper or a plastic bag to catch your poo

In the bathroom:

  • Wash your hands and place the test kit on a clean surface  
  • Take the lid off the test. The lid is attached to the stick that you will use to collect a small amount of poo
  • Collect your poo in the clean container or your covered hand. Don’t let your poo touch the water in the toilet
  • Scrape the stick along the poo until the grooves are full. Don’t add extra poo, only a small amount is needed
  • Put the lid back on the test and close it
  • Flush your poo down the toilet and dispose of any containers or bags that were used to collect your poo
  • Place your test into the envelope provided
  • Wash your hands

Send your test back as soon as possible after collecting your sample.

What happens after you’ve completed the bowel cancer screening tests? 

After you’ve posted your test, you’ll get your test results in about two weeks. 

Most people will be told that no further investigation is needed. This means that you don’t need any further tests and that you’ll receive another screening kit in two years. However, if you experience any symptoms of bowel cancer, you shouldn't wait for your next screening test. Instead, speak to your GP and ask about an at-home test. 

Some people will be told that further tests are needed. This means that a certain amount of blood was found in your poo sample. This doesn't mean you have cancer, but it’s important to find out what is causing the bleeding. You’ll be offered more tests, such as a colonoscopy.

Benefits and risks of bowel cancer screening 

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

Benefits of bowel cancer screening 

  • Screening can spot bowel cancer at an early stage, when it’s most likely to treatable. Research shows that more than 9 in 10 people survive bowel cancer when it’s diagnosed at the earliest stage. 
  • Screening can help to find polyps (non-cancerous growths) which may be in the bowel. Polyps may develop into cancer in the future, so removing these will reduce your risk of getting bowel cancer 

Risks of bowel cancer screening 

  • No screening programme is 100% accurate. Cancer may be missed if the tumour was not bleeding when you took the test. This is why it’s important to speak to your GP if you have symptoms even if you’ve recently done a screening test 
  • Screening may spot blood caused by things that aren’t cancer, for example other medical conditions and some food and medicines. This may lead to further tests, such as a colonoscopy and cause you to worry. Your screening test will come with information about things that may affect the test results 
  • Bowel cancer can develop in the two years between your screening tests. Speak to your GP if you have any symptoms and ask about an at-home test 

Private or commercial screening 

What are private screening tests for? 

Private screening tests are at-home self-tests sold by private companies that test for blood in your poo and return a positive, negative, or invalid result. Also called commercial screening tests, they can be bought in pharmacies, online, and in some shops and supermarkets. These tests are not approved for NHS screening and unlike NHS test companies they don't have to be registered with the Care Quality Commission (CQC). 

Should you take a test? 

Some people who don't have any symptoms and aren’t in the age range for the choose to pay for a private test. As they're not approved for NHS screening, they may give a different result when compared to NHS screening tests or at-home tests given by your GP.  

Getting a positive result from a private test won’t automatically lead to a referral for further tests, you'd still need to go to your GP. Your GP doesn’t have to refer you if there isn’t any cause for concern such as symptoms or a family history of bowel cancer. Because of this we can’t comment on or recommend individual private tests.

NHS screening tests and private tests are only for people without symptoms. If you have any symptoms, please contact your GP. They'll want to see you and may ask you to do an at-home test to help decide whether your symptoms need further investigation.

More information 

Bowel Cancer Screening Programme England

  • Call the screening helpline on 0800 707 60 60 or visit NHS England for more information about bowel screening in England 
  • Further information about the FIT test and how to use it is available to download in 10 different languages including Polish, Urdu, Arabic and Chinese (simplified and traditional) 

Bowel Cancer Screening Programme Scotland 

  • Call the screening helpline on 0800 0121 833 or visit NHS Inform for more information about bowel screening in Scotland 

Bowel Cancer Screening Programme Wales 

  • Call the screening helpline on 0800 294 3370 or visit Bowel Screening Wales for more information about bowel screening in Wales 

Bowel Cancer Screening Programmes Northern Ireland 

Find out more about the symptoms of bowel cancer

Learn more about hospital tests for bowel cancer

Find out more about visiting your GP about bowel cancer


Page reviewed:
May 2024

Fit tests in England and ScotlandThe faecal immunochemical test (FIT) in England (left) and Scotland (right).

Images courtesy of Public Health England and NHS Health Scotland.

 

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