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70 per cent take part in bowel screening but not enough do it regularly

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by Cancer Research UK | News

9 May 2014

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New research shows that 70 per cent of people send back at least one bowel screening test kit, according to a study* published in the journal Gut.  

“Regular screening is important because it greatly increases the chances of detecting cancer early” – Dr Siu Hing Lo, study author. 

But only around 40 per cent return kits consistently, which is needed to maximise the chances of detecting bowel cancer. 

The study also highlights that that those from more deprived backgrounds were less likely to take part in bowel cancer screening than those from affluent backgrounds.

Scientists from the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre at University College London (UCL) looked at data from over 60,000 people in Southern England aged between 60-64. 

People were sent bowel cancer screening kits every two years as part of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Programme and the researchers tracked their responses to three successive screening invitations.

Worryingly, they found that while a large majority of people completed and returned at least one test kit, only around four in 10 (44 per cent) sent back all three tests. 

Crucially, these tests need to be done every two years to maximise the chance of detecting cancer – which may be missed if only one test is completed.

The study also found that repeat invitations did not reduce differences in participation rates between people from affluent and deprived backgrounds.

The NHS Bowel Screening Programme aims to detect bowel cancer at an early stage – before people have any symptoms and when treatment is much more likely to be effective. 

All men and women aged 60 – 74 years are sent an invitation letter and then a home screening kit every two years. 

Dr Siu Hing Lo, a researcher at the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre and one of the study authors, said: “Our study shows that while many people send back at least one bowel cancer screening test they receive in the post, worryingly, only a minority do the test every two years. Regular screening is important because it greatly increases the chances of detecting cancer early. Another alarming finding was that people from more deprived backgrounds are much less likely to take part in the screening programme, despite repeat invitations.

“Although it is good news that more than two in three people will do the test at some point, this work confirms that we need to do more to promote regular screening participation and to increase uptake of bowel cancer screening among deprived groups.”

Every year around 40,600 people in the UK are diagnosed with bowel cancer with around 15,600 deaths from the disease.

Dr Julie Sharp, Cancer Research UK’s head of health information, said: “Bowel screening can detect invisible early signs of cancer in people who have no symptoms at all.  Regularly completing these tests helps make sure those signs aren’t missed. Bowel cancer is one of the most common causes of cancer death in the UK – second only to lung. 

“It’s important that we build on this type of research to understand  better why some groups are less likely to do the test and what barriers stop people doing more than one test.  

“We urgently need to do more to diagnose bowel cancer earlier in order to improve survival rates and screening is a vital part of this. It’s predicted that bowel cancer screening will save over 2,000 lives a year by 2025.”


For media enquiries please contact the press office on 020 3469 8300 or, out-of-hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059.

*Lo SH et al. Colorectal cancer screening uptake over three biennial invitation rounds in the English bowel programme (2014) Gut.