Beating bowel cancer together

Restoring the bowel cancer screening programme in the UK

Tuesday 20 October 2020

In October, Scotland restarted the NHS Scottish Bowel Screening Programme, bringing them back in line with the rest of the UK. All bowel screening programmes across the UK have now resumed after they were temporarily paused in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

As part of the wider remobilisation of the NHS, bowel screening kits will begin to be posted out again, and people who were sent a screening kit before the pause are now also being asked to complete and return them.

We’re pleased programmes have now restarted across the UK

Screening aims to detect bowel cancer at an early stage, when it's often more easily treated. It was vitally important that the programmes restarted as soon as possible, and we're pleased that bowel screening has now recommenced across all of the UK.

In June our figures showed the number of bowel cancer screening invitations not sent out in England alone had surpassed the million mark since lockdown began in March – that’s one million missed opportunities and the numbers have grown since.

Diagnostic tests, such as colonoscopies, have also resumed for those whose test results need further investigation following their screening test. Unfortunately, due to the cancellation of clinics earlier in the year, there’s a backlog of thousands waiting for further investigations after receiving a positive screening result.

We understand the unprecedented pressures that coronavirus has placed on the NHS. The NHS now needs adequate resourcing and robust recovery plans to get back on track with screening and diagnostics to ensure this backlog is cleared quickly.

What is bowel screening?

Screening is a way of testing healthy people to see if they show any early signs of cancer. 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'll be invited to take part in screening every two years until you reach the age of 75.

Each of the screening programmes in the UK use home tests, which look for hidden blood in poo. If you're registered with a GP and within the eligible screening age range, a test will be automatically posted to you, which you can complete in the privacy of your own home.

Read more about the screening test.

Why is bowel screening important?

Bowel cancer screening saves lives. Nearly everyone diagnosed at the earliest stage will survive bowel cancer for at least five years, but this drops significantly as the disease develops.

By detecting bowel cancer at an early stage, treatments can be given early when they have the best change of working.

The test can also find polyps (non-cancerous growths), which might develop into cancer. Polyps can usually be removed, to lower the risk of bowel cancer.

What're we doing?

If you've been sent the test in the post, we urge you to complete and return it.

We're influencing service recovery plans in all four nations to help ensure the NHS effectively addresses the backlog of thousands waiting for further investigations, and over a million people who missed their screening test due to services being paused. We want to see a clear plan for how the NHS in each nation will respond to the second wave of coronavirus to make sure cancer services are not put on hold again, further limiting the impact on bowel cancer diagnostics and treatments.

Around 16,000 people die from bowel cancer each year, making it the UK’s second biggest cancer killer. However, this shouldn’t be the case as the disease is treatable and curable, especially if diagnosed early. Bowel cancer screening plays such an important role in diagnosing the disease earlier and saving lives that it simply cannot be put on hold once again.

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