Bowel cancer screening
Bowel screening is a way of detecting bowel cancer at an early stage, or sometimes, of preventing cancer from developing in the first place.
In the UK bowel screening currently uses Faecal Occult Blood Testing (FOBT). FOBT looks for hidden traces of blood in your stools. The test can be done in the privacy of your own home using a testing kit received through the post.
Traces of blood in the stools can be a sign of bowel cancer. So by finding them, screening can help pick up the disease at an early stage when it’s easier to treat.
Who is invited?
In England, men and women are offered bowel screening every two years from age 60 to 69. The English programme is gradually being extended to also invite men and women aged 70 to 74. Older people can request a bowel screening kit by calling freephone 0800 707 6060.
In Northern Ireland, people are offered bowel screening every two years from age 60 to 69.
In Scotland people are offered the test from age 50 to 74.
And in Wales people are offered screening from age 60 to 74.
Why is bowel screening important?
When bowel cancer is found at the earliest stage, there is an excellent chance of survival and more than 90% of people survive at least 5 years. When found late, the chances of survival are dramatically reduced. Research has shown that bowel screening with FOBT reduces the chances of dying from bowel cancer by a quarter in people who are screened1.
The bowel screening programme has only been fully up and running since 2010 so it is too early to say exactly how many lives it saves, but it is predicted that it will save over 2000 lives each year by 20252.
What are the downsides of bowel screening?
Like the other screening programmes, bowel screening is effective, but it’s not perfect. Bowel screening has quite a lot of false negative results, so some people with bowel cancer will be missed.
Also some people, although fewer, will have a false positive result, which means that the FOBT picks something up even though they do not have bowel cancer. False positive results can lead to anxiety and investigations, like colonoscopy, which carry a very small risk of bleeding, or tearing the wall of the bowel1.
There is a small chance of overdiagnosis of pre-cancers following bowel screening. This means that some people may be diagnosed and treated for growths in the bowel that have not actually turned into full-blown cancer, and would not have gone on to cause a person any harm. This is likely to be less of a problem for bowel screening than for some other types of screening3.
What about screening for younger people?
Bowel screening is effective at cutting deaths from bowel cancer in people in their 50s, 60s and early 70s1. As bowel cancer is rare in younger people, a population screening programme would not be appropriate. But some people with certain inherited conditions or a family history of bowel cancer may be offered screening at a younger age.
There hasn’t been much research into bowel screening in people over 74.
A new bowel cancer screening test
The English government has committed to adding a second bowel screening test to the programme from next year. The new Flexi-Scope test bowel screening test uses a camera and light at the end of a flexible tube to detect and remove pre-cancerous growths from the lower parts of the bowel.
Cancer Research UK scientists led the trial which showed that the Flexi-Scope test has the potential to prevent a third of bowel cancer cases in people screened, as well as picking up the disease earlier4.
Our current research
You can read all about the research we are doing about bowel cancer screening on our research highlights pages.
Find out more
Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team
- Hewitson et al (2007) Screening for colorectal cancer using FOBT, Hemoccult Cochrane Database sys Rev Jan 24 (1)
- Parkin et al (2008) Predicting the impact of the screening programme for colorectal cancer in the UK. J Med Screen 15 (4) 163-74
- English Pilot of Bowel Cancer Screening: an evaluation of the second round. Final report to the Department of Health. Feb 2006
- Atkin et al (2010) Lancet 375:1624-33