Introduction 

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK. If it's detected at an early stage, before symptoms appear, it's easier to treat and there's a better chance of surviving it.

To detect cases of bowel cancer sooner, the NHS offers two types of bowel cancer screening to adults registered with a GP in England:

  • All men and women aged 60-74 are invited to carry out a faecal occult blood (FOB) test. Every two years, they're sent a home test kit, which is used to collect a stool sample. If you are 75 or over, you can ask for this test by calling the freephone helpline on 0800 707 60 60.
  • An additional one-off test called bowel scope screening is gradually being introduced in England. This is offered to men and women at the age of 55. As of March 2015, about two-thirds of screening centres were beginning to offer this test to 55-year-olds. It involves a doctor or nurse using a thin, flexible instrument to look inside the lower part of the bowel. 

Taking part in bowel cancer screening reduces your chances of dying from bowel cancer, and removing polyps in bowel scope screening can prevent cancer. However, all screening involves a balance of potential harms, as well as benefits. It's up to you to decide if you want to have it.

To help you decide, read on to learn about what the two tests involve, what the different possible results mean, and the potential risks for you to weigh up.

What does the FOB screening test involve?

The home testing kit is used to collect tiny stool samples on a special card. The card is then sealed in a hygienic freepost envelope and sent to the screening laboratory, where it will be checked for traces of blood that may not be visible to the naked eye, but could be an early sign of bowel cancer.

For more information, read what the FOB screening test involves.

Your results

You'll receive the results of your FOB test within two weeks of sending in the test kit. There are three types of result:

  • Most people will have a normal result – no further tests are needed and you'll be invited to take part in screening again in two years (if you're still aged 60-74).
  • A few people will have an unclear result – you'll be asked to repeat the FOB test up to twice more.
  • A few people will have an abnormal result – you'll be offered an appointment to discuss colonoscopy at a local screening centre.

Read more about FOB test results.

If you're outside the age range...

People aged 75 and older can still be screened for bowel cancer. They can request an FOB screening kit by calling the freephone helpline on 0800 707 60 60.

People younger than 60 are not eligible for the FOB screening test, but can have bowel scope screening (see below). If you have symptoms, are worried about a family history of bowel cancer, or are worried about your bowel health in any way, speak to your GP.

What does bowel scope screening involve?

Bowel scope screening is done by a specially trained nurse or doctor at an NHS bowel cancer screening centre.

The doctor or nurse will put a thin flexible tube into your bottom to look inside the lower part of your bowel and remove any small growths, called polyps, that could eventually turn into cancer.

Read more about bowel scope screening.

Your results

You'll receive the results of your bowel scope screening test within two weeks of your appointment. 

  • Most people will have a normal result.
  • Some people will have polyps, which may mean having another examination of the bowel (a colonoscopy).
  • Rarely, the test will find cancer.

Read more about bowel scope screening results.

What are the risks?

No screening test is 100% reliable. There's a chance a cancer can be missed if it was not bleeding when the screening test was taken. This means you might be falsely reassured.

Bowel scope screening is usually safe, but in rare cases it can cause harm to the bowel. Learn more about the risks of bowel scope screening.

If you get an abnormal result, you'll be offered a colonoscopy. Although rare, there are risks associated with having this investigation. Most people who have a colonoscopy will not have cancer. Learn more about having a colonoscopy (PDF, 270kb).

Bowel screening helpline

Call the bowel screening helpline on 0800 707 60 60:

  • to request a home test kit if you are 75 or over
  • if your home test kit hasn’t arrived when you expected it
  • to find out if bowel scope screening is available in your area
  • if you want more information about bowel cancer screening

If you have a question about bowel cancer screening, you can also check to see if it’s already been answered in our FAQs.

Page last reviewed: 09/02/2015

Next review due: 09/02/2017