Bowel cancer is currently the second biggest cancer killer in the UK after lung cancer. Around 41,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year, and approximately 40% of these die of the disease. Beating Bowel Cancer, a UK charity dedicated to supporting bowel cancer patients, believes that these figures could be dramatically improved by lowering the screening age.
Currently, there are variations in the age that automatic screening is offered across the UK. In Scotland, patients aged 50 to 75 are regularly tested for signs of bowel cancer. However, in the rest of the UK, only those aged between 60 and 75 are screened. This means that many people in their 50s are missing out on early diagnosis of the disease.
Beating Bowel Cancer is campaigning for the screening age to be reduced from the age of 60 to 50 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The charity estimates that over 4,000 people could be diagnosed early as a result, so giving them a greater chance of successfully treating their bowel cancer. The charity is currently encouraging the public to petition their MPs for the change.
In the last ten years, death rates from bowel cancer have fallen by around 13% due to national screening programmes and new developments in cancer treatment. Awareness campaigns have increased public knowledge about potential symptoms of bowel cancer, which include bleeding when passing stools; changes in bowel habit lasting three weeks or more; unexplained weight loss; extreme unexplained tiredness and a pain or lump in the stomach.
Each year, about 4,600 people in their 50s are diagnosed with bowel cancer. These people are not routinely screened (except in Scotland) and so many of them will only find out they have the disease when they present to their GP with symptoms such as those detailed above. The opportunity of diagnosing the cancer at its earliest stage may have already been missed at this point, meaning that the chances of the patient surviving are lower.
Once bowel cancer is diagnosed, investigations will be made into what stage the cancer has reached. These stages are numbered 1 to 4 depending on how far the cancer has progressed. It is far more likely that stage 1 bowel cancer will be picked up by screening than by a GP referral. Nearly all patients who are diagnosed with stage 1 bowel cancer survive for five years or more after diagnosis (around 97%). However, if bowel cancer is not diagnosed until stage 4, survival rates drop to just 7%.
Beating Bowel Cancer has also suggested that the scheme could save the NHS money, since treating a patient with stage 1 bowel cancer costs an average of £3,373 per patient, whereas treatment for stage 4 costs around £12,519 per patient.
Camilla Wonnacott, an associate in the clinical negligence team at Penningtons Manches, said: “Early screening programmes provide a welcome opportunity for this disease to be caught in its early stages, potentially improving the outcome for patients and saving the NHS money. Sadly, we do see clients who have suffered unnecessarily due to a delay in cancer diagnosis. They may experience a serious injury as a result of more extensive treatment and may well face a shortened life expectancy. Please feel free to contact a member of our team if you or a member of your family believe you may have suffered a delay in diagnosis of cancer.”