April is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month and here at Bowel Cancer UK we are using the month to raise awareness of the importance of bowel cancer screening.
Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK and the second biggest cancer killer. Every 30 minutes someone dies from the disease. However bowel cancer is treatable and curable especially if diagnosed early and that's where screening comes in. Taking part in bowel cancer screening is the best way to get diagnosed early. Nearly everyone diagnosed at the earliest stage will survive bowel cancer yet this drops significantly as the disease develops.
Screening can detect bowel cancer at an early stage in people with no symptoms, when it is easier to treat. Sometimes it can prevent bowel cancer from even developing in the first place by picking up non-cancerous growths (polyps) which could become cancerous in the future.
We hear from patients frequently about how pleased they are that they decided to take the screening test when it popped through their letterbox and how it saved their life. People like John who told us:
"If I hadn't taken the test I would not have known that I had a cancer inside me, getting bigger every day, until the symptoms became visible. If it had got to that stage the medical treatment might have been more daunting and my survival chances would have been lower."
Or Joy who said:
"I consider myself very lucky. Completing the screening test was the best decision I have ever made. There is no doubt in my mind that if I hadn't, I would not be alive today."
We have the chance to save even more lives like John and Joy's by introducing a new simpler, more accurate and cost effective test to the screening programmes in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The UK National Screening Committee (UKNSC) recommended in January that the Faecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) should be adopted by the three nations screening programmes, replacing the current guaiac Faecal Occult Blood Test (gFOBT). FIT is already used in population screening around the world including Italy, the Netherlands, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Spain and Japan.
The new test would come at a welcome time as uptake rates for screening are shockingly low with huge variations across the UK. In many areas of England for example, they fall well short of the 58 per cent average, in some cases it is as low as 33 per cent. FIT, which can detect hidden traces of blood within stool samples - important because bowel tumours and the precursors polyps can bleed - has been shown to increase screening uptake by around 10%, including in previous non responders. This is primarily because only one sample is required, compared to gFOBT's three and the collection process is also more straight forward.
Importantly economic modelling has also proven that FIT is cost effective. With around a 15% higher mortality rate from bowel cancer in the UK than in some other parts of Europe, this is a test that provides us with an opportunity to not only save lives but to save money too - vital in our cash strapped NHS - so why are we waiting?
Scotland has already committed to introducing FIT in their screening programme and it should go live in 2017, leaving England, Wales and Northern Ireland lagging behind. Whilst we wait for a decision, lives are being lost.
We therefore call on the Government and the new Assemblies to approve the recommendation as a matter of urgency. Only then will we be on our way to stopping bowel cancer. For good.