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Published: 17 April 2024

Understanding BowelScreen and making it work for you

Bowel screening can save lives. It’s about prevention, and early detection:

  • preventing cancer from developing by finding and removing early signs of disease (polyps)
  • helping to find cancer at an early stage when it can be easier to treat.

Screening is a personal choice. It’s important that everyone who is eligible can access screening if they want to. While some people might decide that screening is not for them; there are also people who might want to choose screening but can’t because something gets in the way.

So, let’s look at all the ways you can get more information, understand what bowel screening is, and how you can make it work for you.

Getting your invitation

BowelScreen is for everyone aged 59 to 69. We’ll invite you to do the test every two years if you’re in this age range.

If you’re not on the register, you won’t get an invite. It’s important too that your address is up to date on the register so that you receive your invite letter and your results.

If you have not been sent an invite letter, and think you should have been, get in touch with us. There are a few ways you can do this, and check the register:

Understanding bowel screening

Bowel screening is a free, simple, test that you do at home at a time that suits you. It’s called a FIT kit. Your invitation letter will include information about the test to help you make a decision about taking part.

You might still have questions after reading the information and we have lots of resources that can help. Some of these can be useful for people who speak English as a second language, people who find it hard to read and write, and for people with additional needs and who might process information differently:

Deciding to take part

Lots of people believe that taking part in regular bowel screening is important. In fact, in our most recent research in 2023, over 8 in 10 people told us so. People told us that the main reason they would take part in bowel screening is for peace of mind.

They also told us why they think some people might not take part in screening - the main reason is fear of finding something wrong. Let’s look at that and try to break down this barrier to screening.

  • First, let’s look at the numbers: most people get a normal result. This means they do not need any further tests and will be invited to do a test again in two years. For every 1,000 people who do the BowelScreen test, about 40 will need another test - a colonoscopy. Of those who have a colonoscopy, about 2 people will have a bowel cancer detected.
  • Now the science: Finding small growths – polyps – during a colonoscopy, and removing them, can prevent cancer from developing and reduce the chance that you will get bowel cancer in the future. This is why it’s important to do the BowelScreen test every time you’re invited. Research tells us that if cancer is found through bowel screening, it’s more likely to be found at an earlier stage when it can be easier to treat and can be cured. This is how screening can save lives.
  • What do screening participants say: We ask people who have taken part in BowelScreen to tell us what they think. 9 out of 10 people said their experience of BowelScreen was either good or very good. Most people (over 98%) said that the test kit was easy to use and that the instructions leaflet was easy to read and understand.
  • A patient story: Mary Kennedy was 61 when she did her first BowelScreen test. Even though she was told she had cancer after her screening, she feels lucky because it was found at an early stage when her treatment was easier. Now, Mary is thriving and wants everyone to choose bowel screening.
  • “The power of bowel screening”: Listen to public health specialist Dr Alan Smith talk about how we want you to take part in BowelScreen as part of your regular health checks because it’s a chance to stop cancer developing for many people.

Being afraid of finding something wrong is normal. Knowing that most people will get a normal result can help. Knowing that cancer can be prevented or treated if something is found can give you the peace of mind that people say motivates them to do the test.

Keep listening to your body

Bowel screening is for people who have no symptoms of bowel cancer. Whether you’ve taken part in bowel screening or not, it’s important to know your own body and what is normal for you and your bowel habits. Screening will not pick up every sign that could develop into cancer, and cancer can develop between screening tests. Get to know the symptoms of bowel cancer and if you notice any unusual changes, talk to your GP.

Making your decision

When you are fully informed about what bowel screening can and can’t do, you can decide whether or not to choose screening.

If you decide to take part, then make sure you are on the register, get your test kit, and send your sample back for testing.

If you decide not to take part, that’s okay. Screening is your choice. The good news is that you can change your mind, because if you’re aged 59 to 69, it’s never too late to do your first BowelScreen test.