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Screening in Scotland

Bowel cancer screening aims to find bowel cancer at an early stage, when treatment is more likely to work.

This page is about the bowel cancer screening programme in Scotland.

What is screening?

Screening means testing people for early stages of a disease before they have any symptoms. For screening to be useful the tests:

  • need to be reliable at picking up cancers
  • overall must do more good than harm to people taking part
  • must 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 NHS screening programme sends a bowel cancer testing kit every 2 years to people between the ages of 50 and 74. You need to be registered with a GP to receive your screening invitations. 

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

FIT - bowel cancer screening test

FIT stands for faecal immunochemical test. It is the name of the new bowel cancer screening test, which aims to detect cancer at an early stage when treatment is more likely to work. 

The test looks for tiny traces of blood in the sample of poo (stool or faeces) which can be a sign of bowel cancer. It is easier to use than the old test, you only need to collect one sample.

How to do the test?

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 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
  • put the sticker from the letter  on the other side of the tube marked with +, so they know it is your sample
  • put your tube into the prepaid envelope and post it

After the bowel screening test

About 2 weeks after your tests, you will get your results. 

Normal results 

Most people have normal results. This doesn't completely rule out cancer. So it's important to know your own body and what is normal for you. See your GP if you have changes that don't go away. 

Abnormal results 

This means blood was present in your sample. This can be caused by cancer or by other medical conditions. Most people with an abnormal result do not have cancer. 

The screening programme might ask you to do the test again. 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. 

Risks and benefits of bowel screening

Benefits

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

Risks

Bowel cancer screening works well in finding cancer early but it isn’t perfect.

  • False positive result - this means that the tests pick 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, if you take part in screening it is important to know the symptoms of bowel cancer and see your GP if notice any changes
  • Overdiagnosis - there is a 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 is likely to do more harm than good. 

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

Last reviewed: 
24 Jul 2018
  • Scottish Bowel screening Programme
    NHS Health Scotland
    Accessed August 2018

  • 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

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