Bowel Cancer screening – taking the fear out of testing
‘Cancer’ is a truly scary word, and tummy troubles have been the source of too many schoolboy jokes for us not to be embarrassed about our bowels. But it’s a combination you ignore at your peril – especially when a simple test could save your life.
How big a problem is bowel cancer?
- Blood mixed in with your stools (especially dark red or black)
- Being off your food or losing weight for no obvious reason
- A change in your bowel habit to looser or more frequent stools
- A feeling of not emptying your bowels fully when you go to the toilet
Seeking medical help as soon as you spot these symptoms improves your chances of successful treatment enormously – with early treatment, many people can be completely cured. Even better, screening can pick up cancers even before bowel cancer symptoms develop – but only if you take the test!
Why screen who for colon cancer?
As with many cancers, early treatment means a better chance of recovery. Screening has been shown to improve survival rates by a whopping 16%. 4 out of 5 people who get colon cancer are over 60, which is why the screening is aimed at them. The NHS bowel cancer screening service started in 2006 and is now available everywhere in the UK. Everyone aged 60-69 in England, Wales and parts of Northern Ireland (50-74 in Scotland) is invited to take part every 2 years. If you’re over 70, you can still be screened if you call 0800 7076060 and ask for a testing kit.
If you’re eligible, you’ll get a letter in the post. It will come with a home testing kit and a leaflet explaining how to do the test. It simply involves taking a tiny sample of your stool and sending it off to be checked for blood that can’t be seen. About 98% of people will receive a normal result, and will be invited for screening again 2 years later.
What if it’s bad news?
If your result is abnormal, you’ll be invited to have further tests. This will usually involve a procedure called a colonoscopy, which is done under sedation but doesn’t need a general anaesthetic. It takes less than half an hour and you’ll be able to go home within a couple of hours. Even if you do have an abnormal first screening test, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer. Bleeding can be due to other causes, and many people who go on to have further tests will be relieved to find they don’t have cancer after all.
At worst, taking part in testing means problems will be picked up earlier, when they can treated more effectively. At best, you’ll have peace of mind. So whatever you do, take the test!
New screening test, new hope
From April 2011, a new NHS bowel cancer screening programme is being rolled out across England. 55 to 59 year olds will start being invited for a test called a ‘flexi-sig’, which involves looking into the back passage with a small flexible telescope. This test takes only a few minutes to do, and has been shown to cut death rates among people screened by more than 40%. Patients will be able to ask for the test, or the GP can refer them for it if they have any symptoms of concern.
Although the test will only be available in a few parts of the country at the moment, it’s likely to be rolled out to the whole of England within the next few years, and may be made available to people up to the age of 64.