Bowel cancer screening

The bowel cancer screening programme aims to detect bowel cancer at an early stage.

What is bowel cancer screening?

About one in 20 people in the UK will develop bowel cancer during their lifetime. It is the third most common cancer in the UK, and the second leading cause of cancer deaths, with over 16,000 people dying from it each year. [1]

Regular bowel cancer screening has been shown to reduce the risk of dying from bowel cancer by 16%. Bowel cancer screening aims to detect bowel cancer at an early stage (in people with no symptoms), when treatment is more likely to be effective. [2]

Bowel cancer screening can also detect polyps. These are not cancers, but may develop into cancers over time. They can easily be removed, reducing the risk of bowel cancer developing.

The NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme in Lincolnshire offers screening every two years to all men and women aged 60 to 74. People over 74 can request a screening kit by calling the free phone helpline 0800 707 6060.

How the programme works

Men and women eligible for screening receive an invitation letter explaining the programme, and an information leaflet entitled ‘Bowel Cancer Screening – The Facts’.

About a week later, a faecal occult blood (FOB) test kit is sent out along with step-by-step instructions for completing the test at home and sending the samples to the hub laboratory. For Lincolnshire the Hub is based at Queen’s Medical Centre (QMC) Nottingham. The test is then processed and the results sent within two weeks.

Around 98 in 100 people will receive a normal result and will be returned to routine screening. They will be invited for bowel cancer screening every two years if still within the eligible age range for routine screening. Remember, if you are over 74 you can request a kit by calling the helpline 0800 707 6060.
Around two in 100 people will receive an abnormal result. They will be referred for further investigation and usually offered a colonoscopy.

Around four in 100 people may initially receive an unclear result which means that there was a slight suggestion of blood in the test sample. This could be caused by conditions other than cancer such as haemorrhoids (piles). An unclear result does not mean that cancer is present, but that the FOB test will need to be repeated. Most people who repeat the test will then go on to receive a normal result.

Polyps and bowel cancers sometimes bleed, and the FOB test works by detecting tiny amounts of blood which cannot normally be seen in bowel motions. ‘Occult’ means hidden. The FOB test does not diagnose bowel cancer, but the results will indicate whether further investigation (usually a colonoscopy) is needed.

People who receive an abnormal result will be offered an appointment with a specialist nurse. The nurse will explain what a colonoscopy involves, assess the patient’s fitness for the procedure, and answer any questions. These appointments should be offered at the hospital (Lincoln, Boston, Grantham or Louth) nearest to the patients registered GP.

What is a colonoscopy?

A colonoscopy is an investigation that involves looking directly at the lining of the large bowel. A sedative is given and then a thin, flexible tube with a tiny camera attached (a colonoscope) is passed into the back passage and guided around the bowel. If polyps are found, most can be removed painlessly, using a wire loop passed down the colonoscope tube. These tissue samples are then checked for any abnormal cells that might be cancerous.

In Lincolnshire the screening colonoscopies are undertaken in the endoscopy department at Lincoln County Hospital and Pilgrim Hospital, Boston.

  • About five in 10 people who have a colonoscopy will have a normal result.
  • About four in 10 will be found to have a polyp, which if removed may prevent cancer developing.
  • About one in 10 people will be found to have cancer when they have a colonoscopy.

For further information please see the following websites:
GOV.UK Population Screening Programmes
NHS screening

The bowel cancer screening helpline can be contacted on 0800 707 6060.
The screening centre can be contacted directly on 01522 597548.

[1] CancerResearch UK, 2005. Cancerstats
[2] Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2006. Screening for colorectal cancer using the faecal occult blood test: an update