Colorectal Cancer

Tests and examinations for bowel (colorectal) cancer

Diagnosing bowel (colorectal) cancer usually requires an examination followed by certain tests such as a simple examination of your abdomen (tummy) and your bottom - a digital rectal examination (checking for lumps or swelling within reach of a finger). If the GP feels there is reason to investigate further they will refer a person for referred for further tests and more than one investigation may be needed to confirm or exclude a diagnosis of bowel cancer. Tests can include:

  • a flexible sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy
  • colonoscopy (examinations of the bowel using instruments inserted into the back passage) or
  • a computerised X-ray examination (CT colonography) and sometimes
  • a gastroscopy endoscopy (examination of the stomach with a special instrument).

In the past a barium enema X-ray was the standard test for bowel cancer, but it has been replaced by flexible sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy and CT colonography in most parts of the UK.

If you are diagnosed with bowel (colorectal) cancer you may also have an ultrasound scan, a CT scan or an MRI scan which provide your doctor with more detailed information about the size and position of the tumour and whether it has spread to other organs. Detailed descriptions of these examinations are available on from Cancer Research UK and Macmillan Cancer Support.

Most people who underwent diagnostic tests for bowel cancer found them uncomfortable or embarrassing rather than painful. Many were relieved to be undergoing tests because they were anxious to know the cause of their symptoms. Several people who faced a long wait for a test such as a colonoscopy paid to have it done privately because they feared the consequences of delaying diagnosis and treatment. Since 2000, the “2 week wait” system for suspected cancer referrals in the UK means all patients should be seen by a specialist within two weeks of referral if their GP suspects cancer.

This man describes his experience of a barium enema.

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A woman explains what it was like having an endoscopy (examination of the stomach).

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These people describe their colonoscopies.

People who had CT or MRI scans did not generally find them a problem apart from one man who is claustrophobic. He explains how he had his scan assisted by the nurses.

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Some people did find it painful to have a biopsy taken. This woman describes what she experienced.

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Last reviewed August 2016.

Last updated August 2016.

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