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Medical update: bowel cancer screening

Tuesday 8th July

Bowel cancer is the UK's second biggest cancer killer and fourth most common cancer. Figures from the charity Beating Bowel Cancer reveal a worrying difference in uptake for the national screening programme. In England it varies from 66 per cent in the best performing areas to 42 per cent in the country's worst. Read on to learn more about the screening programme.

The NHS bowel screening programme has been gradually introduced across England, Wales and Scotland from 2006, in a rolling programme, and now covers the whole of the mainland. Commenting on the figures it released in April this year Beating Bowel Cancer believes that thousands of lives could be saved through improved participation in the screening programme.

Mark Flannagan, the charity's chief executive, says: “Bowel screening really can save lives. Taking part in screening is very important because it can find bowel cancers when they are small, before they cause symptoms.”

NHS screening is available to men and women between the ages of 60 and 74 in England and Wales; 50 and 74 in Scotland and 60 and 71 in Northern Ireland. First you receive an invitation and information leaflet in the post, followed about a week later by a DIY test kit. “The test helps to detect polyps, which are non-cancerous growths, which may develop into cancer over time,” says Mark. “These polyps can bleed and the test, called the FOB [faecal occult blood] test, helps to detect tiny amounts of blood that you can’t normally see. Screening won’t tell you whether you have bowel cancer, but if you have blood in your poo you will need further tests to find out the cause.”

About the FOB test

The FOB test is simple to do and if you receive a kit in the post the best thing you can do for your  health is complete it and send it off for analysis. “The test is done in the privacy of your own home and involves collecting small samples of your bowel motion, which you wipe on a special card. It’s completed over the course of a few days and then returned in the post to a central laboratory for the results.”

The good news is that if it's detected early enough, the survival rates for bowel cancer are reassuringly good. As Mark explains: “The test may sound a bit embarrassing or unpleasant, but it’s quick and easy. Even if you’re fit and healthy, please take a few minutes to do it – it could save your life. Don’t do what most people do and put it on the side thinking they’ll do it later. We urge all those who are invited to take part and return their kits. Any delay could be life threatening.”

Further reading

You can find out more about NHS cancer screening programmes here, as well as by browsing our healthier you section

For information about bowel cancer, from prevention to symptoms, diagnosis and treatment, visit Beating Bowel Cancer

If you have any concerns about your bowel movements, such as bleeding from the bottom or any changes in your bowel habit that last for more than three weeks, see your GP

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