NHS expands lifesaving home testing for bowel cancer to catch disease earlier

Hundreds of thousands more people will be sent a home-testing kit that can help to detect signs of bowel cancer, as the NHS expands its lifesaving screening programme to individuals aged 54 in England.

People aged 54 will now automatically receive a home test kit every two years by post when they become eligible. The kit, known as the faecal immunochemical test (FIT), checks for blood in a small stool sample, which can be a sign of bowel cancer.

The phased expansion to people aged 54 years means an additional 830,000 people in England will now be eligible for the screening test, with London, which has the lowest uptake in the country, amongst the first places to roll out to this age group.

This significant expansion of the national bowel screening programme is the latest step in the NHS’s drive to find cancers at an earlier stage when they are easier to treat.

FIT kits are done at home by putting a poo sample in a small tube and returning it by post to the NHS for testing.

Those newly eligible will receive an invitation letter and will be sent their test with full instructions and prepaid return packaging.

Results are sent back to participants, along with information about further tests, if needed.

Through regular screening, the programme aims to diagnose bowel cancers at an earlier stage, increasing the chances of successful treatment and survival.

Steve Russell, National Director for Vaccinations and Screening at NHS England, said: “Lives are saved when cancers are caught early and this expansion of our bowel cancer screening programme to those aged 54 will help to spot signs of bowel cancer sooner, and potentially save thousands of lives.

“We are seeing positive uptake of the home testing FIT kits, with over two thirds of those eligible returning their tests, but we want to see even more people taking up the offer.

“I would encourage anyone who is sent a kit to return their tests as quickly as you can – most people won’t have signs of cancer, but if the test does detect anything, we can ensure they are sent on for further tests and treatment. Please look out for your kit in the post and don’t ignore it”.

Early detection of bowel cancer, the third most common type of cancer in England, can significantly improve treatment outcomes.

Jon Jennings from Solihull is a keen runner and took up his bowel cancer screening test when he received it from the NHS this summer, aged 56.

A member of Knowle and Dorridge Running Club where he regularly completes 5k runs in less than 19 minutes, he was not expecting any surprises when he returned the kit a few days later.

Jon said: “It was a surprise to be called for a follow-up colonoscopy in July and from there I was told I had bowel cancer, before having surgery in August.

“I feel tremendously lucky that the age for screening had lowered, and I qualified for a test just after my 56th birthday – there is no doubt my grade of cancer was lower because it was caught early through screening.

“I am so grateful to Dr Krandaker and the team at Solihull Hospital – screening is a privilege we should all take up. For most people it is taking a small sample of your poo and then receiving the green light when the test result comes back, but for a smaller number of people like me it can help detect cancer.

“I would urge everyone who is sent a screening kit not to ignore it – it may just save your life”.

Jon, who is married with two children, is back running after his all clear in September and clocked up an 18 minute 31 second 5k parkrun.

Around 2 out of 100 people who use the kit will require further testing.

The FIT home testing kit is already made available through the NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme to everyone aged 56 to 74. People aged 75 and over can request a kit by phoning the NHS bowel cancer screening helpline on 0800 707 60 60.

Since the FIT kit was introduced into the screening programme in April 2019, national uptake has increased from 59.2% to 67.8%.

The FIT kit is more convenient to use than the previous home test as it only requires one sample which can be done at home and is then returned in a sealed bottle.

Due to the increased uptake with the FIT kit, more cancers are now being detected than when the previous test was used.

Lynn Dunne, Chief Executive of the charity Bowel Research UK, said: “This expansion will undoubtedly save lives, especially now the incidence of the disease is increasing in the under-60s.

“No other cancer is so reliant on early diagnosis to prevent emergency surgery.

“It’s a very simple test, which takes only minutes and can be done in the privacy and comfort of your home”.

Dr Lisa Wilde, Director of Research and External Affairs at Bowel Cancer UK, says: “This is fantastic news and a massive step in the right direction towards screening from 50 in England, which we’ve long campaigned for. Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK but it’s treatable and curable if diagnosed early. Screening is one of the best ways to detect bowel cancer early and can often find it before symptoms develop. For most people, the home test should be fairly easy to complete and the majority of those who take part in screening won’t have bowel cancer. Quite simply, bowel cancer screening could save your life and we would encourage everyone to complete the test when they receive it.”

People can call the free bowel cancer screening helpline for advice on 0800 707 60 60. Information on bowel cancer and the screening programme can be found on the website.

If you notice any symptoms of bowel cancer, contact your GP and don’t wait for your screening test. The type of changes to look out for are changes in your usual bowel habits for 3 weeks or more:

  • tummy discomfort
  • blood in poo
  • diarrhoea or constipation for no obvious reason
  • a feeling of not having emptied your bowels after going to the toilet
  • pain in your stomach or bottom
  • your poo is loose, pale or looks greasy.