Squeamishness is leading to thousands more deaths from bowel cancer

The British are fairly squeamish when it comes to matters of the bottom. We are nothing like our fellow northern Europeans. We just don’t talk about it, apart from in jokes. So what, I hear you say: it doesn’t matter. Except, unfortunately, for our health it does.

There are 41,000 people in this country diagnosed with bowel cancer every year — that’s one in 16 of us. Despite improvements in healthcare, the condition is often discovered late, and every year 16,000 people die from it. Anyone can get cancer and the cancer takes years to grow. This slow growth explains why most people with bowel cancer have few or no symptoms.

The national bowel cancer screening programme was set up a decade ago to try and save 2,000 lives a year by finding cancers early. Great news — except British squeamishness about one’s bottom means that less than half of us take up the offer. Men are even worse — only one in three of us take it up.

In the UK all 60- to 74-year-olds are invited for bowel screening every two years. Scotland has to be different and starts invitations at the age of 50. People can voluntarily stay on the programme after 74. The invitation letter comes with the test which is simple to do. Using a spatula sent with the invitation, you place a small amount of poo on to a card or small pot. You can cover your nose and wear gloves if you want. The test is sent away and you will receive a report in two weeks.

The test looks for blood, but even if it shows blood there is a nine in 10 chance you will not have cancer. This test will find such small amounts of blood that you would not have even noticed. If blood is found on the test, you will be invited for something called a colonoscopy, otherwise known as a camera test. What? You’re going to put what where? British squeamishness!

Bowel cancer screening seeks to find cancer early. If found early enough it may not even need surgery and can be cured completely. A colonoscopy can also take polyps (small growths) away. Some of these polyps, if left long enough, can change to a cancer. It is a win-win situation.

So come on Brits, you can do it. It’s just some poo. Do the test and we can save 2,000 lives each year.

Dr Shahab Siddiqi is a consultant colorectal surgeon with Medstars.co.uk.


  • Dana Smith

    Fantastic advice Dr Shahab Siddiqi . I have Ulcerative Colitis and had a colonoscopy. It’s not that bad. And it could save your life.