Bowel cancer is typically diagnosed in those aged 60 and over, but that’s not to say it’s exclusive to that age group.
To help spot signs of the disease in young adults, Bowel Cancer UK has teamed up with three universities to launch a special risk assessment tool.
The “potentially life-saving” tool calculates the risk of a patient’s symptoms and helps GPs decide whether they need to conduct further tests.
Its aim is to speed up the diagnosis of patients under 50 who often experience significant delays.
Previous research shows that nationally, three out of five people diagnosed under the age of 50 will be at stages three or four, with a third (34%) being diagnosed in an emergency situation, for example in A&E.
Every year in the UK over 2,500 under-50s are diagnosed with bowel cancer, a 45% increase since 2004.
The new tool, launched ahead of Bowel Cancer Awareness Month in April, is the first of its kind for younger people. It assesses the risk for conditions including bowel cancer and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Using symptoms, a physical examination and blood test results, the tool - designed by researchers from The University of Exeter, Durham University and University Hospital of North Tees - calculates the risk of a serious disease with a percentage, as well as suggesting next steps.
If the risk percentage is 3% or more, the GP should refer the patient for an urgent colonoscopy (a test to examine the inside of the bowel) or refer the patient to a specialist for further assessment.
If there is 1-3% risk, the GP should recommend the patient for a faecal calprotectin test (which shows if there is any inflammation in the bowel). This can help rule out a non-serious condition like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
If the risk is less than 1%, the doctor should monitor the patient’s progress. But at this stage no further tests are needed.
Across all ages, 13,000 people are diagnosed with IBD every year, of which many are under 50 years old.
Symptoms of IBD and bowel cancer are common and account for one in 12 GP appointments, but given that most of the symptoms won’t be caused by cancer, it can be difficult for GPs to determine which patients need further tests.
As a consequence young people often face a delay in their diagnosis, reducing their chance of survival significantly.
Nearly 98% of people will survive bowel cancer for five years or more if detected at stage one compared with less than one in 10 people diagnosed at stage four.
Deborah Alsina, chief executive of Bowel Cancer UK, said: “As the numbers of under-50s affected by bowel cancer and bowel disease continues to rise, research is fundamental in finding better ways to diagnose people early when treatment is likely to be more successful.
“Delayed diagnosis is all too common for young patients with both bowel cancer and inflammatory bowel disease therefore finding quicker, more effective ways to identify and diagnose these patients earlier is crucial.
“Our research shows that one in five young patients have to visit their GP five times or more before they get their diagnosis and this is simply not acceptable.”
She added that all GPs across the UK should have access to this “potentially life-saving tool” as part of their day-to-day practice.