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Bowel cancer screening

Bowel screening aims to find cancer early or to find changes in your bowel that could lead to cancer.

The screening programmes send a bowel cancer testing kit every 2 years to people who can take part. You need to be registered with a GP to receive your screening invitations. The test is called FIT - Faecal Immunochemical Test. It looks for tiny traces of blood. You do the test at home. The kit contains instructions of what to do including a prepaid envelope to send the sample to the hospital.

You should get the results within a few weeks. The letter will tell you what you need to do next. There are benefits and risks.

Bowel cancer screening is still going ahead in the UK. But because of COVID-19, there are delays. You might have to wait longer for your home-testing kit or a follow-up appointment. There might also be changes to what happens if you need a follow-up appointment. This includes the staff following strict guidance on infection control to protect you and themselves. This means that you won’t be able to take someone with you to your appointment. Your results might be delayed, so ask at your appointment how long it might take and who to contact if you haven’t heard in that time. It’s important to remember that screening is for healthy people with no symptoms. If you notice any unusual changes to your body that don’t go away, talk to your doctor. In most cases it won’t be cancer, but it’s best to get it checked out.

What is screening?

For screening to be useful the tests need to:

  • be reliable at picking up cancers or abnormalities that could lead to cancer
  • do more good than harm to people taking part
  • be something that people are willing to do

Screening tests are not perfect and have some risks. The screening programme should also be good value for money for the NHS.

Who can have bowel screening

The screening programmes send a bowel cancer testing kit every 2 years to people eligible to take part. You need to be registered with a GP to receive your screening invitations. 

There are separate bowel screening programmes for the different countries in the UK. 

In England, people between the ages of 60 and 74 years take part. 

The bowel cancer screening programme in England uses a test called faecal immunochemical test (FIT). 

People aged over 74, can request a screening kit every 2 years by contacting the bowel cancer screening programme on 0800 707 6060. 

The bowel cancer screening programme in Wales uses the faecal immunochemical test (FIT). It covers people between the ages of 60 to 74 years old. 

You can watch a video in Welsh about how to do the FIT in Wales. The video is about 1 minute long. 

For more information and help completing the kit, you can contact the Bowel screening Wales helpline on 0800 294 3370.

The bowel cancer screening programme in Scotland, uses the faecal immunochemical test (FIT). It covers people aged between 50 and 74 years old.

People aged over 74, can request a screening kit by contacting the bowel cancer screening programme on 0800 012 1833. 

You can watch a video about how to do the FIT in Scotland. The video is about 1 minute long. 

In Northern Ireland, the bowel cancer screening programme uses the faecal immunochemical test (FIT). It covers people aged between 60 and 74 years old. 

You can watch a video about how to do the FIT test.

For more information about the bowel cancer screening programme in Northern Ireland contact the helpline on 0800 015 2514.

The bowel cancer screening test

The bowel cancer screening test is called the faecal immunochemical test (FIT).

The FIT looks for tiny traces of blood in the sample of poo which can be a sign of bowel cancer.

How to do the FIT?

You don’t need to respond to your screening invitation to take part. You will automatically be sent a testing kit (about 2 weeks later). You do the test in your own home. The test is clean and simple. You only need to collect one sample of poo.

In the envelope you receive, there is:

  • a detailed leaflet with instructions on how to do the test
  • a tube with a stick in it to collect your sample
  • prepaid specially designed (hygienic) envelope for you to send it back

The easiest way to collect the sample is to use an old plastic container, line it with toilet paper and pop it in the toilet. And then have a poo.

Once you have collected your poo:

  • dip the stick from the testing kit in the poo
  • make sure the end is covered with poo
  • put the stick back in the tube and twist it shut
  • write the date on the side of the tube
  • you may need to put a sticker from the letter on the side of the tube marked with + (this is only for people in Scotland)
  • put the tube into the prepaid envelope and post it

Getting your results

About 2 weeks after your test, you will get a letter with your results. 

Most people receive a letter that says ‘no further tests needed at this time’. This doesn’t completely rule out cancer. So it’s important to know your body and what is normal for you. See your GP if you have changes that don’t go away.

If your letter says ‘further tests needed’ this means that blood was found in your sample. This can be caused by other medical conditions and does not necessarily mean cancer. But if it is cancer, finding it at an early stage means treatment is more likely to work.

The screening programme may ask you to do the test again if your letter says ‘further tests needed’. Or you'll have an appointment to see a specialist nurse at a bowel cancer screening centre. The nurse will talk to you about having a test to look at the inside of your large bowel. This is called a colonoscopy. 

Possible benefits and risks of bowel cancer screening

Possible benefits

Bowel cancer screening saves lives. It aims to prevent and detect cancer at an early stage when treatment is more likely to work.

Risks

False positive result

This means that the test picks up something even though the person doesn't have cancer. This can cause anxiety and lead to further tests. 

False negative result

Rarely, screening tests miss a cancer. It is important to know the symptoms of bowel cancer and see your GP if you have any symptoms. 

Overdiagnosis

There is a small chance that some people may be diagnosed and treated for bowel growths that would not have caused any harm. 

Screening for people at higher risk

Bowel screening works well at reducing deaths from bowel cancer in people in their 50s, 60s and early 70s. As bowel cancer is rare in younger people, screening them is not useful. 

Some people can have regular screening at an earlier age, if they have certain conditions that increase their risk of bowel cancer.

Be Clear On Cancer

Be Clear On Cancer bowel screening campaign aims to encourage people to do the bowel screening test.

Jan's story

This is Jan's story about her diagnosis and treatment for bowel cancer. 

"I had done the test many times before. Unlike the other times the result that came back was not good. I have had surgery ….it was successfully removed. So no further treatment required."

Last reviewed: 
17 Dec 2020
Next review due: 
02 Oct 2023
  • Bowel cancer screening: the facts
    NHS cancer screening programmes, 2012

  • Bowel cancer screening
    NHS England
    Accessed June 2019

  • Bowel Screening Wales
    NHS Wales
    Accessed June 2019

  • NI Bowel cancer screening programme
    HSC Public Health Agency (Northern Ireland)
    Accessed May 2019

  • Scottish Bowel Screening Programme
    NHS Health Scotland
    Accessed May 2019

  • Association of Coloproctology of Great Britain & Ireland (ACPGBI): Guidelines for the management of cancer of the colon, rectum and anus (2017) – diagnosis, investigations and screening
    C Cunnigham and others
    Colorectal disease, 2017. Volume 19, Pages 1-97