Bowel cancer screening
Bowel cancer screening is important because it can find bowel cancers when they are small, before they cause symptoms.
The screening can also detect polyps, which are non-cancerous (benign) growths that may develop into cancer over time. Polyps can easily be removed, which reduces the risk of bowel cancer developing.
Bowel cancer screening was introduced in the UK after studies showed that regular screening can reduce the risk of dying from bowel cancer by 16%.
Bowel cancer screening programmes vary in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In England, everyone aged 60-69 is currently offered screening every two years. From April 2010, the age limit was extended to include men and women up to their 75th birthday, although it will take a few years for this to happen across the whole of England. Anyone older than 75 can have bowel screening every two years by requesting a screening kit using the bowel cancer screening helpline number.
In Scotland, bowel screening is currently offered every two years to people aged 50-74.
In Wales, bowel screening is currently offered every two years to people aged 60-74. The age range is gradually being extended to include men and women from the age of 50. It’s hoped that this will happen across the whole of Wales by 2015.
In Northern Ireland, all men and women aged 60-69 are currently offered bowel screening every two years. The upper age limit is gradually being extended to 71.
These bowel screening programmes aim to find bowel cancer at a very early stage, when it has the best chance of being cured.
Screening isn’t appropriate for you if you:
have had bowel investigations (such as a colonoscopy or barium enema) in the last two years
are being treated for bowel cancer
have had your large bowel removed
are on a bowel polyp surveillance programme
are waiting for bowel investigations that have been arranged by your GP.
The faecal occult blood (FOB) test is the first stage of bowel screening.
The NHS in England is planning to introduce bowel screening using flexible sigmoidoscopy for all men and women when they reach the age of 55.
This will be called bowelscope screening. Research has shown that a one-off flexible sigmoidoscopy can help to detect bowel polyps and cancers at a very early stage and gives a lasting benefit.
This test will be offered alongside the existing FOB test used in the current bowel cancer screening programme. The FOB test will continue from the age of 60, whether a flexible sigmoidoscopy has been done or not.
Flexible sigmoidoscopy is a way of looking inside the bowel using a thin, flexible tube called an endoscope. The endoscope has a tiny light and a camera on the end and allows the nurse or doctor to see the rectum and lower end of the colon (sigmoid colon).
The details of the new screening programme are still being worked out, but it’s hoped that it will be available throughout England by 2016.