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Bowel cancer health centre

What is bowel cancer screening?

BMJ Group Medical Reference


Cancer screening means looking for signs of cancer in healthy people. The idea is to find cancers before they have started to cause any symptoms. This means treatment can be started early. Bowel cancer is a serious condition, but there are good treatments. Treatment is most likely to work if the disease is found at an early stage. If you are worried about bowel cancer, you might want to have a screening test. Regular screening is now recommended in most of the UK for men and women over 60.

We've brought together the best research about bowel cancer screening and weighed up the evidence about the different methods. You can use our information to talk to your doctor and decide which screening test is best for you.

Cancer screening means looking for signs of cancer in healthy people. Bowel cancer screening can find bowel cancer early, before it starts causing any symptoms. It can also prevent bowel cancer, by finding small growths called polyps that might turn into cancer if they are not removed.

colon-screening_default.jpgBowel cancer is one of the main causes of death from cancer in the UK. [1]

The term 'bowel cancer' includes cancers of the colon and rectum, which make up the upper and lower part of your bowel.

Bowel cancer is sometimes called colorectal cancer. The bowel turns food your body doesn't need into solid waste. The waste then leaves your body when you go to the toilet.

To find out more, see Bowel cancer.

Types of screening tests

Doctors use several different tests to screen for bowel cancer. We've described the four most common tests. To learn more about these tests, see What will happen to me during my test?

Faecal occult blood test

This is where a sample of your stool is tested for blood. It is called an occult blood test because blood may be hidden in your stools (the word 'occult' can mean 'hidden'). If you have blood in your stools, it might be because you have a tumour in your bowel (although there are other reasons).

Flexible sigmoidoscopy

In this test, a doctor puts a thin, bendy tube into your back passage. This allows the doctor to look at your rectum and the lower part of your bowel.


In this test, a doctor puts a thin, bendy tube into your back passage. This is pushed up your bowel so the doctor can see all the way along it.

Barium enema

In this test, a thick white liquid is put into your rectum through a tube in your back passage. Then x-rays are taken of your bowel.

How can screening help?

Screening is used to look for cancer at a very early stage, before it starts to cause symptoms. If your doctor suggests you have screening for cancer, it doesn't mean he or she thinks you have cancer. It means you might benefit from having the screening test, just in case you do have cancer.

Last Updated: February 17, 2011
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.

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