Bowel Cancer Screening

Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes

What is bowel cancer screening?

Bowel cancer screening aims to detect and diagnose bowel cancer. The earlier bowel cancer is found, the easier it is to treat and the better chance of recovery for the patient.

There are a number of tests available for screening bowel cancer. It is advisable that you take part in the NHS screening programme every two years if you are eligible. If you have any other concerns about bowel cancer you should see your doctor. They will assess the best screening techniques for your individual situation. These diagnostic and screening tests are non-invasive and if bowel cancer is detected early, it is very treatable.


What is bowel cancer and what are the signs

Cancer is when abnormal cells start dividing and growing in an uncontrolled way. Cancer cells can grow into surrounding tissues or organs and may spread to other areas of the body.

Bowel cancer is a generic term for cancer that starts in your large bowel. This includes your colon (the first part of the large bowel) and rectum (back passage). It is therefore sometimes called colon or rectal cancer. Treatment will depend on where cancer starts in your bowel.

Bowel cancer is one of the most common cancers diagnosed in the UK. It usually first develops inside clumps of cells called polyps on your bowel inner lining. But you may develop polyps for other reasons and they may go away by themselves or not change. Only a few polyps grow and develop over several years into bowel cancer.


Signs and symptoms of bowel cancer

The three main symptoms of bowel cancer are:

  • Blood in your poo - that happens for no reason
  • Changes in bowel habit - such as more frequent or looser stools
  • Stomach pain, bloating or discomfort - caused by eating and may be associated with appetite loss or significant unintentional weight loss.

Most people with these symptoms don’t have bowel cancer. Other health problems can have similar symptoms. But if you have any of these symptoms you should see your GP. Bowel cancer is mostly diagnosed in people over the age of 60, so it is more important as you get older to take these symptoms seriously and get them checked by a doctor.


Is bowel cancer hereditary

If you have close family members who have had bowel cancer, you might be worried about your own risk of it. In most cases, bowel cancer is not passed down through the family. However, if you have a family history of bowel cancer in a first-degree relative, including your mother, father, brother or sister and they were diagnosed with the condition before the age of 50, you may have an increased lifetime risk of developing it yourself.

You should be aware that the exact cause of bowel cancer is unknown. Research shows several factors, including family history, may make you more likely to develop it. Other factors include being age 60 or over, eating a diet high in red or processed meats and low in fibre, being overweight or obese, having an inactive lifestyle and drinking alcohol and smoking.

If you’ve had another condition such as extensive ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease in the colon for more than ten years, you have an increased risk of bowel cancer.

If you are worried about your risk of bowel cancer you should speak to your GP or doctor. You can also arrange an early and convenient appointment with a Ramsay bowel specialist if you prefer.


When is bowel cancer screening required?

The NHS offers a bowel cancer screening programme. In England, all men and women aged 60 to 74 who are registered with a GP are sent a bowel cancer screening kit every two years. This home kit is called a faecal immunochemical test (FIT). You simply collect a poo sample and post it to a laboratory for testing. Most people require no further investigations.

You may be invited for a colonoscopy following your results if blood was found in your poo sample. Having a colonoscopy does not mean you have bowel cancer. A colonoscopy is used in this instance to look for the cause of the blood in your stools.

There are other circumstances when you might want a bowel screening test and Ramsay can help.

These include:

  • you’re not eligible for the NHS screening but you are worried about bowel cancer
  • you have a family history of bowel cancer or polyps
  • you are worried about other abdominal or bowel problems.

At Ramsay, we offer a number of screening options. You can book an appointment without waiting at one of our bowel cancer screening clinics to discuss your concerns.

Our screening methods include:

  • Stool testing- to test for blood hidden in small poo samples
  • Colonoscopy - a long flexible tube with a light and a tiny camera is inserted through your back passage to examine your large bowel lining
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy - a shorter flexible telescope is used to look inside your rectum and the lower part of your large bowel only
  • CT colonography - an investigative procedure that produces images of your large bowel and rectum.

If bowel cancer is diagnosed, Ramsay provides comprehensive bowel cancer care including treatment and support for you throughout your journey.


How long does bowel cancer screening take and what to expect?

Bowel cancer screening on the NHS is a simple home kit that should take only a few minutes. Once you send off your sample to the laboratory, you should receive your results in about two weeks.

If you have private bowel cancer screening, a variety of diagnostic tests may be performed.

You may have an endoscopy procedure, called a colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy.

A colonoscopy should take 30 to 45 minutes. It looks at your entire large bowel using a long, thin, flexible tube with a very small camera that relays images to a monitor. It is performed in the hospital and you may be there for around two hours including pre-procedure and recovery time. You will be advised of any results on the same day and if any polyps are removed. If a sample biopsy is taken, your results will be available when they return from the laboratory.

A flexible sigmoidoscopy takes around 15 minutes. It looks at your back passage and some of your large bowel. A sample biopsy may be taken to allow the cells to be investigated in the laboratory. Small polyps may also be removed. Biopsy results will be available once the hospital receives them from the laboratory.

A CT colonography is an outpatient CT scan. It is performed by a radiographer or specialist doctor (radiologist) and usually takes around 30 minutes. You will lie on your front on a scanning table that moves into the CT scanner. It will take a virtual scan of the inside of your bowel. You will be advised when your results will be available. They can take up to one to two weeks and are usually given to you by your specialist.


How to prepare for bowel cancer screening

If you are doing a FIT at home, then you simply take a poo sample and send it off. You don’t need to do any other preparation.

If you are having a colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy as part of your screening, you will need to prepare by ensuring your bowels are empty before the procedure. You will be advised about what to eat and drink in the days before your test and when you should stop eating and drinking. You’ll also be given or told how to get laxatives and how to take them.

Patients having a CT colonoscopy also need empty bowels. A special liquid called Gastrografin is typically given. It is a dye containing iodine that helps to achieve clearer scan pictures of your bowel. It also acts as a laxative.


Bowel Cancer Screening at Ramsay Health Care

It’s important to get any symptoms of bowel cancer checked out by a doctor as soon as possible. Our conveniently located Ramsay hospitals offer screening for bowel cancer without waiting with experts.

You can read more about our cancer care and treatments or please get in touch if you’d like to talk to us about any concerns.

Register your interest to hear from us