Patients are being urged to use and return at-home bowel cancer test kits that have been sent to millions of homes in England as part of an NHS England (NHSE) cancer awareness campaign.

NHSE said that one third of more than a million faecal immunochemical test (FIT) kits posted out each month for people to use at home are not returned, and the NHS hopes to boost participation in the screening programme.

There are around 16,800 deaths from bowel cancer each year in the UK, but the chance of successful treatment and survival is much higher for patients when the condition is identified early.

Health service leaders are calling on people to not be ‘prudish about poo’, saying that patients are often reluctant to talk about possible bowel cancer symptoms with healthcare professionals due to embarrassment.

National clinical director for cancer, Professor Peter Johnson, told patients: ‘Don’t die of embarrassment. Thousands of people in England develop bowel cancer each year, but the chances of surviving it are very good when it is caught early.

‘We have seen a fantastic response to our previous cancer awareness campaigns, with record levels of people coming forward for cancer checks, and more people starting cancer treatment than in previous years.

‘I would urge everyone who is sent a kit to return their test as quickly as they can, because this can detect the early signs of bowel cancer and ensure that anyone affected can get treatment for the disease as soon as possible.’

Dr Lisa Wilde, Director of Research and External Affairs at Bowel Cancer UK, says: “Screening is one the best ways to detect the disease at an early stage when it’s easier to treat and we recommend every eligible person take part by returning their home screening test. However those people who have a positive screening test are having to wait too long for an endoscopy to diagnose or rule out bowel cancer – the UK’s second biggest cancer killer.

‘We know that NHS staff work incredibly hard and are facing extreme pressure as there is an increasing demand for these lifesaving tests, but there are simply not enough trained staff to see patients quickly who are referred for suspected bowel cancer.

‘Earlier this year, the Government announced they are replacing the 10-Year Cancer Plan with a Major Conditions Strategy, which we hope will set out their ambition to improve bowel cancer outcomes over the coming years. We know early diagnosis for bowel cancer is key but staff shortages and lack of capacity in endoscopy and pathology services continue to be the biggest barrier to making this a reality for more patients.’

The campaign will include advertisements across TV, radio, and social media; to help increase uptake of the test kits and break down stigma around the condition’s symptoms.

FIT tests, which are sent to patients aged 58-74, detect small amounts of blood in faeces that would otherwise by undetectable by visual examination, meaning that the symptoms of bowel cancer can be detected by clinicians earlier than a patient themselves.

The FIT kit is quicker to use than the previous bowel cancer screening home testing kit. To use it, people simply need to collect a small sample of faeces using the plastic stick provided, place it in the sample bottle, and return it free of charge for testing.

Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said: ‘With the launch of the NHS’ first national campaign on bowel cancer screening, more people will be encouraged to use the home testing kit when they receive it. Screening makes it more likely that bowel cancer will be successfully detected and treated.

‘Together with the NHS we are continuing to extend the screening offer to those aged 50-74. I urge everyone who receives a kit to use it.’

This article first appeared on our sister title, Nursing in Practice.