Screening for any kind of cancer means testing for early signs of the disease before any symptoms develop. For screening to work well it must be reliable, straightforward, and not harmful to participants.
The aim of bowel cancer screening is to detect the disease in the early stages when it is more treatable or to prevent it from developing in the first place.
Roughly one in every 300 people who are screened are found to have bowel cancer. If you are one of them the screening centre will tell your GP who will refer you to a specialist for treatment.
If you live in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, you will automatically enter the national bowel cancer screening programme once you reach the age of 60.
The organisation Beating Bowel Cancer is campaigning for this to be lowered to 50 in line with Scotland.
The different screening procedures are:
his is a new screening test for people aged 55. It is also called a flexible sigmoidoscopy. A thin, flexible tube with a camera at the end is used to look inside your bowel to check for polyps which can develop into cancer.
It is a one-off screening test that you can have at any point up until your 60th birthday. After that, you will begin receiving home testing kits every two years up to the age of 74.
Sigmoidoscopy is carried out in hospital while you are awake. You will be asked to lie on your side while the doctor or nurse gently inserts the tube into your bottom. Air will be pumped down the tube to open up your bowel and make it easier to spot any polyps.
If polyps are identified they will normally be removed there and then sent off to the lab for analysis. This is painless although it can be uncomfortable.
You may be offered a follow-up colonoscopy to check for polyps further up your bowel. Fewer than five out of every 100 people are recalled for a colonoscopy. Rarely you may be offered surgery to remove any polyps left in your bowel.
If polyps that were removed during the test are found to be cancerous, you will be referred to a bowel cancer specialist as soon as possible.
From the age of 60 (50 in Scotland) you will be sent a bowel cancer testing kit every two years, providing you are registered with a GP. This will continue up to age 74.
Home kits test for blood in your poo, which can be a sign of bowel cancer. The kit is straightforward to use. You wipe a sample onto the card provided and send it in a hygienically sealed prepaid envelope. It is then tested and you will receive your results within about two weeks. Your results will either be:
- Normal – even if you have a Normal result, you should always notify your GP if you experience bowel changes that don’t go away or if you are worried about your bowel function.
- Unclear – this normally means there was a slight trace of blood in your sample. You will be sent another kit for a repeat test.
- Abnormal – approximately two out of every 100 tests produce an abnormal result. Most people with abnormal results do not have cancer. Factors that can affect your result include other medical conditions or recent dental work. Also, dietary factors such as eating a lot of red meat, turnips or horseradish in the three days before your test. If you have an abnormal result you may be asked to repeat the test or you may be referred to a specialist nurse at a bowel screening centre. The nurse will talk to you about having a colonoscopy.
This is a way for a trained nurse or doctor to look inside your bowel and large intestine for polyps, which might develop into cancer. You will be given medication to help you relax.
The doctor will insert the colonoscope – a long, flexible, tubular instrument – into your bottom and colon. Air will be blown into your colon to enable the doctor to see more clearly. If any polyps are seen, they will be removed and sent to the lab for analysis.
The colonoscopy is the most thorough examination when detecting bowel cancer.
If you are in a high-risk group, which could include a family history of bowel cancer or bowel polyps, or you are over the age of 50, then a regular colonoscopy examination could be the best method for clarity.
Although bowel cancer screening is largely safe it is not completely failsafe. The main risks associated with screening are:
- A false-positive result – could cause anxiety and lead to further tests.
- A false negative result – this is potentially more serious and it is why you should always visit your GP if you think there may be something wrong.
- Overdiagnosis – there is a small chance that you will be treated for bowel growths that, ultimately, would not have caused a problem.
- Damage to the bowel – This is rare. Around one in every 3,000 people who undergo screening have serious bleeding or damage to the bowel wall. This may require surgery. You should contact your GP if you experience severe pain in your tummy or bottom, or blood in your poo that doesn’t go away after 24 hours.
The GI Doctors are a group of specialist gastroenterologists based in London. We offer bowel cancer screening at our practice so you can receive regular examinations in efforts to prevent bowel cancer by detecting any early signs before any symptoms arise.
For further details, please contact our practice.