Bowel Screening

Initial reaction to the invitation for screening

People invited to take part in screening for bowel cancer receive a letter explaining the reason for the invitation and an accompanying leaflet. The leaflet describes the benefits and disadvantages of screening, and notes that screening may not be appropriate for everybody. People can call the programme Freephone helpline on 0800 707 60 60 if they have any questions or if they do not wish to be screened. They can also call this number if aged 74 or over and wish to be screened. 

The people we talked to described how they had felt when they had received the letter and leaflet. Many did not relish the prospect of collecting the sample, but negative reactions were often transient if they reasoned that other people were doing the same thing ('Yes, it's unpleasant and distasteful but it's part of life'), and that the test might save lives. Some were pleased to be included in the programme, especially if they were aware of bowel cancer or other bowel problems in the family. A woman who discussed her invitation with her husband, who had had bowel cancer, said that he told her, 'There's not even any question. You just, you must do it'.

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One woman had had bowel cancer herself in 1990. This had been successfully treated, but she was glad to be screened because she wanted reassurance that she was still free of the disease.

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One man thought it obvious that he should take part.

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Some people were not surprised to be invited to be screened for bowel cancer because they had read about the programme in the local paper or heard about it at their doctor's surgery. 

Others reacted rather differently to the invitation. Women are used to screening for various conditions but the UK has no other screening programmes for men. Women tended to see the bowel screening programme as “just another check-up”, but the invitation surprised some men. 

A woman in the initial pilot programme was impressed by the scheme, but felt a bit embarrassed about taking part. She also wondered why she in particular had been invited to be screened for bowel cancer. The letter and leaflet she received stated that all those in her age group were being invited for screening but she thought that perhaps her local doctor had also been involved in the selection process.

People who have no family history or particular concerns about cancer sometimes feel they are not at risk of developing bowel cancer and that the screening programme is not relevant to them. A man who took part in the pilot programme also said that he felt a little bit sceptical about it all. Although through screening he found that he had bowel cancer, he had felt healthy when the letter arrived, ate well and didn't see a need to be screened. Looking back he thought that his was a typical male attitude to preventive health care.

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The man mentioned above [Interview 01], who was initially sceptical about the screening programme, also had a very negative reaction when asked to repeat the test. He thought that the people involved in screening were just trying to prolong their work and justify their jobs.

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Others thought that the idea of screening for bowel cancer was “horrible” or “disgusting”. Some were apprehensive, fearing it would be a “messy” procedure, or difficult to do.

One woman also felt anxious for various reasons, but mainly because she had rheumatoid arthritis in her wrists and thought it would be hard to collect the stool samples needed for bowel screening. 

Some people had decided not to take part in bowel screening at all. They had various reasons (see 'Why some were reluctant or did not to take part'). This woman binned her letter of invitation.


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Last reviewed May 2016.
Last update May 2016.


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