Many of us tend to take our health and wellbeing for granted until we become unwell. So, when we receive an invitation to participate in bowel cancer screening the temptation is to ignore it. It’s vital that you don’t though. It is also worth considering testing before the routine screening age, particularly if you are in a higher risk group.


April is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month so to contribute to raising awareness of how we can beat bowel cancer, GI Doctors discuss the importance of bowel cancer screening tests.

Early diagnosis is key

Bowel screening saves lives. If bowel cancer is picked up at an early stage (when there may not be any obvious symptoms or only minor symptoms) there is a far greater chance of treating it.

In fact, nine out of ten people can be successfully treated.

By contrast, if bowel cancer is not picked up until later, the chances of successful treatment fall dramatically. In the advanced stages, bowel cancer may have spread to other organs including the liver or lungs. If this happens, you may only be able to have palliative treatment (to keep the cancer under control and extend your life for as long as possible).

Screening doesn’t just pick up early stage cancer, it can also help to prevent cancer by finding and removing non-cancerous growths (polyps) which may develop into cancer in the future. 

How bowel cancer screening works

Everyone over the age of 60 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is invited to take part in bowel cancer screening. In Scotland it is 50. You will receive an invitation to be screened every two years until the age of 75.

Faecal Occult Blood Test:

The screening test is very straightforward. If you are registered with a GP and are of eligible age you will be sent a screening kit in the post to use in the privacy of your own home. It is called a Faecal Occult Blood Test. The test is straightforward to use and comes with full instructions. 

Using the cardboard sticks provided, you need 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 (or over a 10 day period if you live in Northern Ireland). The screening card is then sent in the freepost envelope to the screening centre for analysis and test results are available in around two weeks. If the results are clear and no blood was found in your poo there is nothing more you need to do. You will receive another test in two years’ time. 

If traces of blood were found you may be asked to do the test again. If blood is found in the second sample as well, you will be invited to a local screening centre to talk about your results. It does not mean you have bowel cancer as the traces of blood may have been caused by another health condition or by non-cancerous growths in your bowel.

You will be offered further tests, such as a colonoscopy to find out what may be causing the bleeding.

Bowel scope screening:

In addition to the home screening test, in England bowel scope screening is being introduced to all men and women aged 55, however it can be a highly informative examination for anyone over age 45, as a means of detecting any early signs of cancer.

This type of screening is carried out in the hospital. It uses a thin, flexible tube with a camera on one end (a sigmoidoscopy) to look inside the lower part of your bowel and your rectum. The test looks for and removes polyps (non-cancerous growths) that could develop into cancer in the future. You will receive your test results in around two weeks.

Faecal Immunochemical Test:

If you live in Scotland you will be sent a Faecal Immunochemical Test. It is very similar to the test used in England other than the fact that the test has a stick attached to the lid and you only need to take one poo sample, which you send off in the freepost envelope.

Risks of bowel cancer screening

No screening programme is failsafe and if you notice bleeding in your poo after being given the all-clear, you should visit your doctor again.

Sometimes, screening gives an abnormal result in people who do not have cancer. This can cause worry and lead to other tests, such as a colonoscopy. While we do not underestimate the distress that this can cause, we believe this risk is outweighed by the many benefits of bowel cancer screening which saves many lives across the UK.

Colonoscopy testing is the most accurate detector

Whilst the Faecal Occult Blood Test is a successful method for mass screening of a large population, if you are considered higher risk then a colonoscopy examination is the most accurate detector, as this test enables the doctor to see inside your intestine, looking for any abnormalities that could show you have bowel cancer, or that you could be at risk in the future.

Higher risk groups could include:

  • Over 50 years of age – 90% of bowel cancer cases are in over 50 year olds
  • Over 60 years of age – 80% of bowel cancer cases are in over 60 year olds
  • A family history of colon polyps or bowel cancer
  • Family history of Lynch Syndrome – this type of colon cancers runs in families and tends to cause cancer from a younger age, under 45 years old
  • In the event that you are experiencing any bowel cancer related symptoms
  • If you are suffering from Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) e.g. Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis

GI Doctors offer private colonoscopy testing with a choice of locations in London.

Working with a specialist that can promptly diagnose and monitor your symptoms, will give you the best chance to get back to feeling your best.