Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in the US. Early detection gives a good chance for treatment to work, and to help prevent the cancer from spreading, not only through the bowel but also to other parts of the body, which carries a risk of death.
The chance of bowel cancer increases as we get older, so, guidelines recommend to start screening from 50 years old.
The aim is to pick up bowel cancer early, before you have symptoms. Some people may be candidates for the home test kit, called a fecal immunochemical test (FIT), which requires you to collect a stool sample and send it off. The kit will have easy-to-follow instructions, but essentially you collect some poop on a stick and put it in a specimen jar, to be sent to the lab in the package provided.
The test picks up microscopic bleeding, which could be caused by a tumor disrupting normal cells in the gut.
Any screening test needs to be acceptable to the person being tested, and as such, this test is designed to be painless and straightforward and gives highly accurate results.
And if it seems a little embarrassing, this test is not face to face, you just send the sample away.
Your result will be sent by mail back to you within 2 weeks.
If you have a negative test result, there is nothing else you need to do. You will simply complete another home test kit in 2 years’ time. About 98 out of 100 do not need further tests.
A positive result means that blood was found in your poop. Bleeding can occur from the gut for other reasons, such as hemorrhoids, but a positive result in any screening means that you need further investigations to find out the cause. It does not test for cancer cells but alerts you to the possibility of cancer.
A positive result means you will be referred urgently to a local colorectal team, who will likely offer you a colonoscopy, a small camera that looks at your gut via the rectum.
This accounts for about 2 out of every 100 people being screened.
Bowel cancer is common, so you should be aware of the symptoms and seek an urgent appointment with your doctor if you develop any, even if you have had a recent negative screening test.
Symptoms that point to a problem with your bowel include red blood or a tarry look to the stool, new constipation or diarrhea, new and persistent tummy pain, a lump in the abdomen or unintentional weight loss.
It’s important to remember that no test is 100% accurate, so get any symptoms checked out.
If you have a family history of bowel cancer or polyps, discuss this with your doctor as you may warrant testing earlier or more frequently than the screening program.
If you’ve had a colonoscopy previously and they found polyps, you will usually have repeat colonoscopies to check. If you think you should have been followed up, speak to your doctor about this.
You may have other risk factors for bowel cancer, such as obesity, smoking and excess alcohol. A diet high in processed foods and red meat and low in fiber increases your risk of bowel cancer, so you should try to address these. Maintain a healthy weight, a diet rich in leafy green vegetables and fiber and add in regular exercise, all of which helps to protect against bowel cancer.
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