Bowel cancer - Screening 

How screening for bowel cancer works 

Bowel cancer can be present for a long time before any symptoms appear. If bowel cancer is detected before symptoms appear, it is easier to treat and there is a better chance of surviving the disease.

The NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme in England started in July 2006. Men and women aged 60-69 registered with a GP will automatically be sent an invitation for screening through the post.

The screening programme is being extended in England to those aged 70 to 75. Screening centres in England are rolling out the extension once their two-year screening invites have completed.

By July 2012, 38 of the 58 local screening centres had started inviting the extended population. People over 70 can also request a screening kit by calling the freephone helpline 0800 707 6060.

Screening consists of a home testing kit, called an FOBt (faecal occult blood test) kit. The kit arrives through the post when screening is due. The kit is used to collect tiny stool samples on a special card. The card is then sealed in a special hygienic freepost envelope and sent to a laboratory where it will be checked for traces of blood, which may indicate a problem.


Results are received in writing within two weeks of sending in the test kit. There are three types of result:

  • Normal: no blood was found in the samples. Screening will be offered again in two years’ time.
  • Unclear: there were possible traces of blood that could be caused by factors other than cancer, such as haemorrhoids (piles) or stomach ulcers. If you have an unclear result, you will be asked to repeat the test kit up to twice more.
  • Abnormal: blood was definitely found in the samples. Again, this could be from piles or bowel polyps (small growths not usually cancerous). If you have an abnormal result, you will be offered an appointment with a specialist nurse to discuss having an examination of the bowel, called a colonoscopy.


A colonoscopy is an investigation of the lining of the large bowel (colon). A thin flexible tube with a tiny camera on the end is passed into your bottom and guided around the bowel. Only around 2 in every 100 people completing the FOBt kit will have an abnormal result and will be offered a colonoscopy. Of those who have a colonoscopy, only about one in 10 will have cancer.

New screening test

As well as the FOBt described above, an additional screening test is being rolled out by 2016. This involves inviting people at age 55 to have a one-off flexible sigmoidoscopy test to examine the lower bowel with a camera.

If the flexible sigmoidoscopy shows polyps, the person will then be offered a full colonoscopy (see above). Both FOBt and flexible sigmoidoscopy screening tests have been shown to reduce the risk of dying of bowel cancer.

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Page last reviewed: 29/08/2012

Next review due: 29/08/2014


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The 5 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

oathy said on 18 February 2014

My dad is 73 and got the first test in the post few weeks ago. He had a letter today saying they had found tiny traces of blood and sent out another test.
Very worried about this he says he hasn't noticed anything different like bowel movements changing or not feeling like food or seeing blood present when he's been to the loo etc.

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gateway9 said on 17 August 2013

Bowel cancer screening (FOBT) is not a perfect test; my husband had his second clear test in April and was diagnosed with bowel cancer in July after other symptoms sent him to the GP. Please do not ignore any symptoms on the grounds that the test was clear; it is a useful tool and does save lives but is not infallible. At this moment husband recovering from major surgery to treat disease. We have learned that unusual tiredness, changed bowel habit and weight loss may present before the obvious blood loss which sent my husband to GP in June. Cannot fault service and care provided by nhs they have been and are being wonderful.

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Egghead123 said on 05 August 2013

My father had bowel cancer and although I'm 48 and under the starting age for screening can I get screened earlier?

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mike diamond said on 23 October 2012

I am 75 years old (do not look or feel like one) but have not yet received an invitation from the NHS
for bowel cancer screening. I assume that I just slipped through the net. In view of having bowel cancer in my family my best action to take is to contact my GP. Anyone in similar situation should do the same.
ps this website is excellent

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SPOCK33 said on 28 June 2011

I was first screened over 2 years ago with a negative result. As I haven't received another test kit I called the helpline to check, to be informed that my file was closed!

It has now been reopened & a kit is on its way. My advice is to make sure that you receive your test kit in good time. It could save your life!

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