Bowel cancer is the second biggest cancer killer, claiming a life every 30 minutes. Yet almost half of those invited to take a free bowel cancer screening test at home simply don’t bother to return the test, despite the fact that in more than 90% of cases, early detection leads to effective treatment.
In an effort to improve these response levels, the government is introducing a brand new bowel cancer screening test across England, which has been shown to improve responses by at least 7% overall, and much more in ‘hard to reach groups, such as men, who typically have a much lower response rate.
How does bowel cancer screening work?
Bowel cancer can have no symptoms in the early stages, so screening is very important if the cancer is to be detected early enough for successful treatment. Screening works by detecting very small amounts of blood in your poo, which are a sign that you have a bleed somewhere in your bowels. There is usually not enough blood to be seen by the naked eye, but it can be detected in the lab.
Bowel cancer screening kits are sent out every two years to everyone aged between 60 and 74. The test comes in the post and includes full instructions for completing it in the privacy of your own home. Once you have taken the samples needed, you simply post it back for analysis. There’s no clinic to attend, no doctor to see and so there’s no embarrassment involved in taking the test.
It is important to remember that there are many causes of blood in the faeces, so a positive test does not automatically mean you have cancer. However, it does mean that you should have further tests. Typically, this will involve an investigation of your bowel using a camera, called a colonoscopy.
So what’s new?
The existing test, called the guaiac-based faecal occult blood test, or gFOBt, requires you to take two samples from your stools on three different days, and it is thought that this complexity may be one of the factors in the low uptake rate. The new test, called the faecal immunochemical test, or FIT, requires just one stool sample, making it much easier to complete.
Not only is the new test easier to do, it also delivers better results from lower levels of blood in the stool. Cancer detection rates doubled in the test groups, with advanced adenoma detection increasing five fold.
When does the new test start?
The government has recently approved the new test for use in England, and it is hoped that the rest of the UK will soon follow suit. The UK National Screening Committee is ‘keen to see this new, improved kit fully available as soon as possible’.
While the new FIT may be easier, the importance of completing either bowel cancer screening test cannot be overstated. Of course, no one enjoys taking a stool sample, but whether you need to do it just once, with the new FIT, or three times with the old style gFOBt, that few minutes of unpleasantness could save your life.
So when your test arrives in the post, ask yourself this simple question: would you rather be amongst the 90% who are diagnosed early and treated successfully, or be one of the 16,000 people who die from bowel cancer every year?