Bowel Screening

Getting an 'unclear' or 'abnormal' result by post

Around 98 in 100 people tested will receive a normal result.

Out of those 98 people 4 will initially have an unclear result which means that blood has been found in 1-4 of the samples, which could be due to other conditions such as haemorrhoids (piles) or a stomach ulcer. An unclear test result has to be repeated with another FOB test.

An abnormal result happens in around 2 in every 100 tested and means that blood has been found in 5 or 6 of the samples - this is not a diagnosis of cancer but it means people are asked to repeat the test and then if necessary offered further investigation, such as a colonoscopy (NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme January 2016). Of the people we interviewed several had received an 'unclear' or 'abnormal' result by post.

Some people were not particularly worried when they received the news of an unclear or abnormal result. One man, who was later diagnosed with cancer, said that he found the screening process 'inconvenient' because he had to take time off work. Another man, who was later diagnosed with polyps, felt a 'bit fed up' when he found he had to repeat the test. 

A man who had received two abnormal results said that he took the situation 'in his stride'. He did not think he had cancer and suggested many other reasons for the blood in his motions. Further investigation found that there was nothing wrong with his bowels.

Other people were less optimistic. When they received unclear or abnormal test results they assumed the worst. This man eventually had further investigations and a cancerous polyp was removed during a colonoscopy. 

Some people had felt anxious when they found out that their test result was not 'normal'. One woman had an unclear result and so had to repeat the test twice. The final two test results were normal but while waiting for the results she worried that if she were diagnosed with cancer she might not be as 'brave' and as 'positive' as she thought many other people would expect her to be.

People who had a spouse or partner usually said that they told them about their result. One man who chose not to tell his wife was not sure why he hadn't - he said she had always been very supportive but he just didn't want to tell her until he could say it was good news. Those who were single, divorced or widowed often felt isolated and concerned about what the future might hold. It was sometimes a relief to confide in an adult child or friend, but some kept the news to themselves because they didn't want to worry anyone else.

Many people felt shocked when they received their unclear or abnormal results. One woman said she felt 'flabbergasted' because she felt so well [Interview 28]. She was also worried about how she would manage if she were diagnosed with cancer because she lived alone. Eventually she had a colonoscopy and two benign polyps were removed.

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A man who had had normal results in 2001 and 2003 was shocked when he received an unclear result in 2005. He had led a healthy lifestyle so assumed he was well. When a repeated test result came back abnormal he was 'extremely upset' and agitated. He went to see his GP to discuss the situation. Subsequently he had a colonoscopy and two benign polyps were removed.

A woman had tests in 2000 and 2003, which were both normal. Then in 2005 her result came back abnormal. This was followed by another abnormal result. Even though she knew that an abnormal result might be due to something other than cancer she felt 'really frightened'. Eventually she had a colonoscopy and two polyps were removed; one was cancerous.

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Even though these people had received unclear or abnormal results they did not seem to mind receiving them by post and none complained about it.

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One man said that if the result had come by phone it might have been alarming because it would have seemed more urgent.

Last reviewed May 2016.

Last updated May 2016.

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