Bowel cancer screening
Bowel cancer screening is offered to people aged 60 to 74 to check for bowel cancer. Screening can help detect cancer at an early stage when treatment is more effective. Screening can also check for and remove polyps which can go on to develop into cancer over time.
Bowel cancer screening programme
The bowel cancer screening programme in Northern Ireland is for people aged between 60 and 74 who have no signs or symptoms of bowel cancer.
If you are outside of this age range and 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.
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.
Bowel cancer screening process
Follow the instructions in the leaflet that comes with your screening invitation.
You can view the information leaflet and watch an animated video on how to complete the bowel cancer screening test at the links below.
- How to take the bowel screening test - leaflet
- How to take the bowel screening test - animated video
Post your completed test kit to the screening laboratory in the pre-paid envelope provided as soon as possible. Make sure you seal the envelope before putting it in the post.
Delays in returning your kit may prevent the sample from being processed.
You should receive your results within two weeks.
If you have any questions about bowel cancer screening, contact the Bowel Cancer Screening freephone helpline on 0800 015 2514.
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 do not need more tests
No screening test is completely reliable. Not everyone who has bowel cancer experiences bleeding, so 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
- 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.
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 help
- 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 take part in screening, you should speak with the person’s GP to decide if screening is in their best interests.
Bowel cancer screening results
For most people, the result will suggest that no further investigations are needed at this time. In this case, routine screening will continue to be offered to you every two years until you reach the age when screening stops.
For about three in every 100 people, the result will show that further investigations are needed.
This result does not mean that you have bowel cancer; it means that some blood was detected in your sample and this needs to be investigated.
Other possibilities include:
You will need to have further tests to find the cause.
If your screening test shows traces of blood in your bowel motion, you will be asked to contact the freephone helpline on 0800 015 2514.
You will be referred to a specialist screening practitioner (SSP) for assessment.
Appointments with the Specialist Screening Practitioner (nurse) may be by telephone or in person. If a telephone appointment is arranged, a suitable time for the nurse to call you will be arranged by the helpline staff.
The nurse may call from a withheld number at the time of this appointment.
This nurse will discuss your result with you and give you details about the next step, which is usually a colonoscopy.
Bowel cancer screening and coronavirus
The Specialist Screening Practitioner will advise you of all safety requirements and instructions for attending your investigation. This may include:
- wearing a face covering
- coming to your appointment alone
- waiting outside until the time of your appointment
If you have symptoms of coronavirus, or have been in contact with someone who does, you must not go to your colonoscopy appointment.
Contact the Trust and let them know you have coronavirus symptoms so that your appointment can be rearranged.
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.
Reducing your risk of bowel cancer
Regular bowel cancer screening has been shown to reduce the risk of dying from bowel cancer by 16 per cent.
As well as taking part in bowel cancer screening, there are some further steps you can take to reduce your risk of bowel cancer:
- eat a healthy diet - make sure you get five portions of fruit and vegetable each day, and include wholegrains, beans and pulses for fibre
- limit the amount of red meat you eat, especially processed red meat
- be active - moving more and sitting less can reduce your risk of serious illness (aim for at least two and a half hours each week)
- maintain a healthy weight - avoid gaining weight and try losing weight if overweight
- drink less - to keep risks to a low level, don’t drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week
- stop smoking
If you have concerns
If you have a family history of bowel cancer, or are worried about symptoms of bowel cancer, or changes in your bowel movements, you should speak to your GP.
Symptoms may include:
- unexplained bleeding/ blood in your stools
- a change in bowel habit
- pain or swelling in your abdomen
- unexplained weight loss
- unexplained tiredness