A free five minute test could save your life

Screening to look for early signs of bowel cancer with a home test is free, only takes a few minutes and could save your life, writes Professor Diarmuid O’Donoghue, Clinical Director of BowelScreen — The National Bowel Screening Programme
A free five minute test could save your life

The Bowel Screen Home Test Kit from the HSE’s National Bowel Screening Programme.

APRIL is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month and time to think about bowel cancer prevention.

Bowel cancer is also known as colon, rectal or colorectal cancer. It affects the lower part of the digestive system. Bowel cancer is currently the second most common cause of cancer death in Ireland. Each year, more than 2,500 people are diagnosed with the disease and more than 1,000 lives are lost.

The number of new cases of bowel cancer is expected to increase significantly over the next 10 years, due mainly to an increasing and ageing population.


The good news is that bowel cancer is also one of the most preventable and treatable types of cancer — if detected early. Regular bowel screening, with a simple home test, can detect changes in the bowel which usually have no symptoms and which can develop into cancer over time.

However, if these changes are detected at an early stage, there are more treatment options and increased chance of survival. This is why regular screening is so important.

BowelScreen — The HSE’s National Bowel Screening Programme provides free home testing to men and women aged 60 to 69 every two years. The test is easy to use, non-invasive and can be done in the privacy of your own home.

Once on the register, eligible men and women will receive a letter asking them to take part in the programme. If they choose to take part, they simply call BowelScreen on Freephone 1800 45 45 55 and a free home test will then be sent in the post with simple instructions on how to do the test.

Professor Diarmuid O’Donoghue, Clinical Director of BowelScreen – The HSE’s National Bowel Screening Programme. Picture: Paul Sharp/SHARPPIX
Professor Diarmuid O’Donoghue, Clinical Director of BowelScreen – The HSE’s National Bowel Screening Programme. Picture: Paul Sharp/SHARPPIX


The BowelScreen home test is a simple test that looks in your bowel motion (stool) for tiny amounts of blood which are not visible to the eye.

You do the test in your own home. You simply produce a bowel motion and collect a small sample on a sampling stick provided in your home test. It will only take one visit to the toilet. It is quick and easy. It is free to post the sample back in the envelope provided. Once you have sent back your sample, a letter will be sent to you with the results of your test within four weeks.

The vast majority of people, 95%, will have a normal result and will be invited again to participate in two years.

For a small number of people, the home test might result in further testing, such as a colonoscopy, which is an examination of the bowel using a small camera. About half of these colonoscopies will detect and remove polyps or pre-cancerous growths, preventing bowel cancer from developing at a 2 later stage. Thousands of people who had no symptoms have already had growths removed by BowelScreen which could have otherwise developed into cancer.


BowelScreen saves lives. To date, the programme has detected 718 bowel cancers and removed almost 19,000 pre-cancerous growths. Despite this, in our most recent screening round, fewer than 40% of eligible men and women availed of the programme. Worryingly, 60% of bowel cancer cases occur in men but less men than women avail of BowelScreen. Only 35% of eligible men took part in the last screening round, compared to 45% of eligible women.

It is vital that everyone invited avails of this free service to reduce their risk of bowel cancer.

During Bowel Cancer Awareness Month, we are urging men and women aged 60 to 69 to check they are on the BowelScreen register, and if invited, to do the test. You can check you are on the register by calling Freephone 1800 45 45 55 or by visiting www.bowelscreen.ie.

For those who don’t fall into the screening age range but have friends, family or work colleagues who do, spread the message about BowelScreen and encourage them to check they are registered.

Screening only works if it is regular so your next free home test is as important as your first. BowelScreen will ask eligible people to participate every two years.


It is very important that everyone, regardless of age or participation in screening, is bowel aware. If you have unusual symptoms or are worried about your bowel health, contact your GP without delay.

Here are some ways you can reduce your risk of developing bowel cancer:

be more physically active;

eat a diet with plenty of dietary fibre such as fruit, vegetables and wholegrain bread, brown rice and cereals;

reduce intake of processed and red meat;

keep a healthy weight;

limit the amount of alcohol you take;

take part in BowelScreen when invited.

For more information, visit www.bowelscreen.ie or Freephone 1800 45 45 55.

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