Due to the ongoing situation with the coronavirus (COVID-19) bowel cancer screening has been temporarily paused . Further information on paused screening programmes is available on the coronavirus (COVID-19) health services page
Northern Ireland Bowel Cancer Screening Programme
The bowel cancer screening programme is for people who have no signs or symptoms of bowel cancer. The programme covers all of Northern Ireland.
All people aged between 60 and 74 registered with a GP are automatically sent a screening kit every two years so you can do the test at home. You should make sure your GP has your correct contact details.
The home screening kit is used to collect a small sample of bowel motion. This is sent to a laboratory to be checked for tiny amounts of blood that you can’t normally see. If the test detects some blood, it does not mean you definitely have bowel cancer.
Other possibilities include:
You will need to have further tests to find the cause. The bowel cancer screening programme will arrange this for you.
When is screening offered
Screening is only offered to people aged 60 to 74. Eight out of ten people who get bowel cancer are over the age of 60.
Screening is not available to people outside of the age range. If you have a family history of bowel cancer or are worried about symptoms or changes in your bowel movements you should make an appointment with your GP.
Limitations of bowel cancer screening
Screening can’t tell if you have bowel cancer. It divides people who have been screened into two groups:
- those who need more tests
- those who don’t
No screening test is completely reliable. There is a chance a cancer could be missed. If you are concerned about bowel cancer symptoms, you should contact your GP, even if your last screening test was negative.
There is also a small risk that some of the further tests you might have after a positive screening result could damage your bowel, but this is rare. There are no risks to your health from the home testing kit.
People who may not need bowel cancer screening
You may not need to complete the bowel cancer screening test if you:
- have had your large bowel removed
- have had a routine colonoscopy or a CT colonoscopy within the last 12 months
- are on a bowel surveillance programme
- are currently being treated for bowel cancer
- are currently awaiting bowel investigations
If you think you are in any of these categories and you receive a test kit, contact the Bowel Cancer Screening freephone helpline on 0800 015 2514 for advice.
Bowel cancer screening process
Screening involves collecting a sample of your bowel motions over three separate visits to the toilet.
Follow the instructions in the leaflet that comes with your screening invitation. You then send the test kit to the screening laboratory in the provided prepaid envelope.
Once you have decided to start the process, you must complete all of the samples and post your kit within 10 days of taking the first sample.
You should receive your results within two weeks.
Helping someone else complete the test
If you take care of the toilet needs of a person with a physical disability you can help them complete the test.
Before helping them you should make sure:
- they have asked for your assistance
- they understand the screening process (including colonoscopy)
- they don’t have a medical condition which means they shouldn’t be screened
If you take care of someone who does not have the capacity to give their consent to participate in screening ,you should speak with the person’s GP to decide if screening is in their best interests.
Bowel cancer screening results
Your results will be one of the following:
- negative (no blood present) - this is the result for the large majority of people and routine screening will continue to be offered to you every two years until you reach the age when screening stops
- unclear - this is the result for a small number of people and you will be asked to take another test to provide better results
- positive (blood has been detected) - this is the result for approximately 3 in every 100 people
If you have a positive result you will be referred to a specialist screening practitioner (SSP) for assessment. This nurse will discuss your result with you and give you details about the next step, which is usually a colonoscopy
A colonoscopy is a test where a thin tube (a colonoscope) with a camera at the end is inserted into your bottom to look for signs of bowel cancer. You may be offered a sedative to help you relax.
Polyps are clumps of cells that aren’t cancer but may develop into cancer over a number of years. They can usually be removed without any pain during the colonoscopy. Any polyps or biopsies which are removed will be sent to the laboratory for examination.
Treatment after the colonoscopy
If your colonoscopy finds that you have polyps, you may be called back for a further colonoscopy in three years’ time to check that they haven’t recurred.
If the examination detects cancer, you will be referred to a specialist for further treatment. The person who does your colonoscopy will be able to answer any questions you may have.