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Early diagnosis saves lives

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Deborah Alsina MBE

Chief Executive, Bowel Cancer UK

Headshot credit: Leo Haymarket

Almost 42,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer annually.. Sadly, around 16,000 people die from the disease each year, making it the second biggest cancer killer. But this shouldn’t be the case. Bowel cancer is treatable and curable, especially if diagnosed early.


Early diagnosis is crucial to survival rates as nearly everyone will survive if diagnosed at the earliest stage. Screening is the best way to diagnose bowel cancer early when treatment has the best chance of working. It can also prevent bowel cancer through the removal of polyps (non-cancerous growths) that may develop into cancer.

The Bowel Cancer Screening Programme in England, Wales and Northern Ireland currently sends all men and women aged 60 to 74 (50 – 74 in Scotland) a home test kit every two years. However, both Welsh and English governments have since committed to lower the age at which people become eligible for bowel cancer screening to 50, in line with Scotland and international best practice.

With around 4,500 people aged 50-59 in the UK diagnosed with bowel cancer each year and a further 1,200 dying from it, this commitment will save many lives.

A new, simple and potentially more accurate test, known as the faecal immunochemical test (FIT), has recently been introduced into the Bowel Cancer Screening Programme in England. This test detects hidden traces of blood in poo that could indicate bowel cancer or polyps. It has the potential to detect twice as many cancers than the previous test and has been proven to increase participation in screening. If blood is detected, people will be referred for a colonoscopy to either confirm a diagnosis of bowel cancer or receive the all clear.

End the workforce capacity crisis

Improvements to the screening programme, an ageing population and changes to GP referral guidelines have meant more people are being referred for a colonoscopy – a key diagnostic test for bowel cancer – and this is putting NHS hospitals under unprecedented pressure.

At the very least, nearly a million more tests are needed, year-on-year in England, with demand for colonoscopies doubling in the last decade. But this has not been matched with additional trained workforce by the Government, and is having a significant impact on both colonoscopy and pathology services.

In fact, staff shortages in bowel cancer diagnostic services are the single biggest barrier to meeting commitments to improve survival rates for the disease. Already, thousands of patients are waiting longer for life-saving tests that diagnose bowel cancer.

Catherine’s story

Catherine, who was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer, shares her experience of waiting longer than she should for life-saving tests. She explains: “In 2014, I spotted bleeding and visited my GP. They dismissed it as nothing serious. In late 2016, the bleeding became more frequent so I returned to the doctor. I was finally referred for a non-urgent appointment and asked to wait three months.”

Bowel Cancer UK’s Capacity Crisis campaign is urgently calling for these workforce capacity issues to be addressed in the NHS Improvement’s upcoming People Plan. It’s vital that clear commitments are made to increase capacity in bowel cancer diagnostic services so that more lives can be saved from the UK’s second biggest cancer killer. This is particularly important as the NHS Interim People Plan, published in June, failed to outline measures to address these capacity issues.

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