Bowel cancer screening explained

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, with about 42,000 cases per year. It happens when cells start to grow abnormally in your large intestine. The term bowel cancer covers two different types of cancer: colon cancer and rectal cancer.

In the early stages of bowel cancer, you’re unlikely to notice any symptoms. As it develops, it can cause changes to your stools, blood in your stools, and/or bloating or pain after eating.

The importance of getting screened for bowel cancer

As bowel cancer doesn’t cause any symptoms early on, it’s often only diagnosed once it’s reached a more advanced stage.

Getting screened regularly means you’re more likely to get an early diagnosis. You can therefore start treatment while the cancer is still in its early stages before it’s had the chance to spread to any other part of your body. This increases your chances of recovery.

Bowel cancer can often start with polyps (small, non-cancerous growths). If your doctor finds polyps in your bowel during a screening, they can remove them to stop them developing into cancer.

Certain groups of people are more at risk of developing bowel cancer than others. If you fall into one of the risk groups, you should consider regular screening.

You’re more at risk if you:

  • Are a smoker
  • Are over the age of 65
  • Eat a lot of red or processed meat 
  • Don’t exercise or are overweight
  • Drink heavily
  • Have a close family member who has been diagnosed with bowel cancer

If you’re aged over 65, it’s recommended that you get screened for bowel cancer every two years.

What's involved in bowel cancer screening?

Bowel cancer screening involves two different types of tests: stool testing and bowel scope tests.

Stool testing can include either a faecal occult blood test (FOB) or a faecal immunochemical test (FIT). Both of these tests look for hidden blood in your stool. You will be asked to collect a small stool sample and your doctor will send it to a laboratory for analysis.

Scope testing (also known as a flexible sigmoidoscopy) involves inserting a thin, flexible tube with a camera and light on the end into your rectum. This allows your doctor to examine the inside of your bowel for any abnormal growths.  

If the screening results are unclear or show anything abnormal in your bowel, your doctor might recommend a colonoscopy. This is similar to a flexible sigmoidoscopy but uses a longer tube. Some people might have a virtual colonoscopy, which is a type of CT scan and therefore is not invasive.

After your screening

Your doctor will discuss the results of your screening with you.

If nothing abnormal is found, then no further action is needed. You should, however, still remain aware and vigilant of bowel cancer symptoms and arrange to be screened again in two years’ time.

If your doctor finds polyps in your bowel, they might recommend having them removed, particularly if there are several polyps or if you have one or two large polyps. After they’ve been removed, you should still look out for any bowel cancer symptoms and arrange to be screened again in two years’ time.

If cancer is found during your screening, your doctor will advise you on the best treatment options for you. About nine in 10 people will recover from bowel cancer if it’s found at an early stage.

We hope you've found this article useful, however, it cannot be a substitute for a consultation with a specialist

If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on the subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Spire hospital.

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Author Information

Cahoot Care Marketing

Niched in the care sector, Cahoot Care Marketing offers a full range of marketing services for care businesses including: SEO, social media, websites and video marketing, specialising in copywriting and content marketing.

Over the last five years Cahoot Care Marketing has built an experienced team of writers and editors, with broad and deep expertise on a range of care topics. They provide a responsive, efficient and comprehensive service, ensuring content is on brand and in line with relevant medical guidelines.

Their writers and editors include care sector workers, healthcare copywriting specialists and NHS trainers, who thoroughly research all topics using reputable sources including the NHS, NICE, relevant Royal Colleges and medical associations.

The Spire Content Hub project was managed by:

Lux Fatimathas, Editor and Project Manager

Lux has a BSc(Hons) in Neuroscience from UCL, a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology from the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology and experience as a postdoctoral researcher in developmental biology. She has a clear and extensive understanding of the biological and medical sciences. Having worked in scientific publishing for BioMed Central and as a writer for the UK’s Medical Research Council and the National University of Singapore, she is able to clearly communicate complex concepts.

Catriona Shaw, Lead Editor

Catriona has an English degree from the University of Southampton and more than 12 years’ experience copy editing across a range of complex topics. She works with a diverse team of writers to create clear and compelling copy to educate and inform.

Alfie Jones, Director — Cahoot Care Marketing

Alfie has a creative writing degree from UCF and initially worked as a carer before supporting his family’s care training business with copywriting and general marketing. He has worked in content marketing and the care sector for over 10 years and overseen a diverse range of care content projects, building a strong team of specialist writers and marketing creatives after founding Cahoot in 2016.