What you need to know about bowel cancer screening

April is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, so here’s everything you need to know about the disease and what tests are available.

What symptoms should you watch out for?

Bowel is one of the most common types of cancer for both men and women – one in 20 people will have it in their lifetime. It’s much easier to treat, and curable, if caught early. Symptoms include a persistent change in bowel habits, blood in stools, abdominal pain or bloating brought on by eating, and constipation.

Most bowel cancers develop inside clumps of cells called polyps on the inner lining of the bowel. A diet high in red and processed meat, smoking and a lack of exercise, can increase your risk.

What is bowel scope?

You’re much more likely to get the disease if you’re over 60, so the current NHS ‘bowel scope’ test is only offered to people aged 55 and over, and only once.

The screening – involving a camera tube inserted through the rectum and into the bowel – was intended to be rolled out across England by the end of 2016, but it’s not reached everyone yet.

How does the home testing kit work?

The second type of NHS test available is the FOB (faecal occult blood) home testing kit. Everyone aged 60 to 74 registered with a GP is sent a bowel cancer screening kit every two years, and after age 75, you have to request them. The kits aren’t available for people under the age of 60 (in Scotland, it’s 50).

It involves taking two samples of your stools on three separate occasions, wiping them on a card and sending the cards off in a sealed envelope for testing.

What’s the new Fit screening process?

This month a new home screening test called Fit is being introduced to replace the current FOB testing kit. The faecal immunochemical test (Fit) works differently by measuring human blood, rather than any blood from food, and only needs one faecal sample rather than six – so people are more likely to do it.

A small stick is wiped on the single sample and sent for testing in a sealed bottle. The Fit test can detect more cancers and have more accurate results (only abnormal and normal, rather than borderline). Like FOB testing, the results come back within two weeks.

Welcoming the new test, Lansley said: “Switching the screening programme over to using Fit should now be an immediate focus, with a roll-out this year and the development of a plan for optimising its use in future as further workforce capacity becomes available.”

What if you’re not old enough to have the tests?

Neither bowel scope nor the home testing kits are available to anyone younger. The NHS suggests seeing a GP if your symptoms persist for more than four weeks, regardless of your age. There’s also a bowel cancer symptom checker online.

Your GP is likely to carry out a digital rectal examination and examine your tummy to check for unusual lumps. It takes less than a minute. They might also do a blood test to see if you have an iron deficiency (which could be caused by bleeding from the cancer).

If these tests suggest you may have bowel cancer, you’ll be referred for the flexible sigmoidoscopy (like that used in the routine bowel scope test), a colonoscopy, which is slightly longer to view more of the bowel, or a CT colonography which produces 3D images of the bowel and rectum.

If concerned, always visit your GP.

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