A long-awaited delivery arrived this week. Not an early Christmas present, more a late birthday gift. Turning 60 might not qualify you for a state pension anymore, (it only ever did if you are a woman) but there are a couple of reasons to be cheerful.
In London, at any rate, you still get a Freedom pass, so you can enjoy riding the buses and tubes of this fair city at will. And then there’s the free bowel cancer screening test kit.
When mine arrived this week it wasn’t exactly a surprise. Months ago, when driving behind a 43 bus, I’d noticed a poster on the back.
'Over 60? (Well, not quite, but nearly.)
Look out for your free bowel cancer testing kit'
It was a bit puzzling really – where was I supposed to look? Was it some kind of treasure hunt? I know that zoos have discovered tigers are much happier if their food is hidden so they have to search for it, rather than just put in a trough. Was this something similar for pensioners to keep them alert and active? I looked in the obvious places that a gift for a 59-year-old might be hidden – the thermal underwear section at M&S, Waitrose wine shelves, among the moisturisers in Boots and my local garden centre. No joy. Then a few days before my sixtieth birthday I got a letter telling my very own kit would be arriving soon through the post. So I had to look out for it on the doormat in the hall. Well, that certainly narrows it down a bit.
And why am I blogging about this on a message board about running?
Because on Monday there was an item on Radio 4’s Today Programme, which said that only around 56% of people complete and return the test. This is very sad, as not only is bowel cancer the second most common cancer killer in this country, it is also one of the simplest cancers to treat if caught early. So why don’t more people complete it? According to the enthusiastic specialist being interviewed, it’s probably a combination of being squeamish about poo, and worried about the possible results. Then just as he was getting into his stride explaining enthusiastically about cameras up the bum, the interviewer cut him off, with a ‘That’s enough of that’ sort of phrase. And when the co-presenter joined in with the worrying effect on poo of eating beetroot, he cut himself off in mid- sentence. So here was a possibly life-saving news item being sabotaged by the very people who are supposed to inform us because it's a bit embarrassing apparently. (A sharp email was whizzing to the BBC before breakfast, I can tell you.)
Then the next day I spoke to my best friend, who being a week older than me had already received her test, which was still sitting unopened on her desk. Now she is a smart woman who has had her fair share of health scares in the past but she still hadn’t even managed to move the test into the bathroom where she could actually use it.
Doing the test is really simple. I read the instructions the night before and put the test next to the loo, along with my reading glasses, a pen (for writing the date) and a plastic tray that mushrooms had come in (as a holding device). Next morning, using the dinky little sticks provided I smeared a tiny bit of poo onto the two windows (of the kit, not the bathroom) then sealed them up and wrote the date. I did this on three different occasions, then put it in the Freepost envelope and sent it off. The test is actually called an FOB test – Faecal Occult Blood . Doesn’t that sound like a scary video game or the kind of horror movies that goes into five or six sequels? Though, apparently ‘occult’ means ‘hidden’, rather than something to do with Alistair Crowley.
I’m taking advantage of this marvellous NHS-funded website to tell you all that smearing a bit of poo is remarkably satisfying in terms of taking responsibility for your health. It might lack the heady glamour of giving blood, which I blogged about recently, but it's easy and you can provide you own tea and biscuits afterwards, just make sure you wash your hands first.
It’s really not that long since the idea that women could be trusted to examine their own breasts for lumps was revolutionary, and men are only just catching onto the idea that feeling their balls could be useful, as well as fun. So if you are over sixty, or know and care about someone who is, please remind them to do the test. It could save their life.