The Blog

Miracle 'Cure' Prevents Thousands of Bowel Cancer Deaths

If this headline referred to some new drug treatment the news would be worldwide. But we can actually make bowel cancer a cancer that almost no one dies from and it's all to do with screening.

Through screening we have the ability to significantly reduce the number of people who die from bowel cancer by thousands. This week is the 10th anniversary of the bowel cancer screening programme in England and we can celebrate the fact that more than 25,300 cancers have been diagnosed because of it.

But unbelievably only 56% of the people eligible for the test actually complete it. So it means almost half aren't taking the opportunity to take a test that could save their life. Imagine how many lives could be saved during the next decade if uptake increased to 75% which is similar to breast and cervical screening.

Every 15 minutes someone is diagnosed with bowel cancer - men and women of all ages, cultures and backgrounds. It's the second biggest cancer killer. But it doesn't have to be this way.

Statistics from Cancer Research UK show that if we catch it early, 97% of cases can be treated successfully. We really have the opportunity in the next ten years to make bowel cancer a rare cancer killer.

Screening is the best way to do this because it can detect signs of the cancer before there are any visible symptoms. If we want to reduce the number of deaths from this awful disease, we need to see as many people as possible screened and any abnormal tests followed up promptly, so that patients are diagnosed and treated at the earliest possible stage.

All men and women in the UK aged 60-74 (from 50 in Scotland) are currently invited to carry out a FOB (faecal occult blood) test at home every two years. The test involves collecting small samples of your poo on a special card. It's completed over the course of a few days and then returned in the post to a laboratory for the results.

Earlier this month the Department of Health announced that the current screening test in England will be replaced by the Faecal Immunochemical Test (FIT). This test is easier to use as you only need to collect one sample of poo and is more accurate than the current test.

It has been estimated that the new test will increase screening uptake by around 10%, meaning an additional 200,000 people will get tested each year.

Great news but the lives saved could be even higher because the test can be made more sensitive, meaning even more abnormalities could be detected. The reason the sensitivity is not at its optimum is that the NHS doesn't currently have the capacity to deal with the increased number of people who would be sent for further diagnostic tests.

If we want to maximise the number of lives saves over the next ten years, we must aim to improve the sensitivity of the test and increase capacity to deal with the increased referrals.

In the meantime, the introduction of the FIT test is an excellent step forward and we hope that it's introduced as soon as possible. It is likely that it will be some time before this new test is used routinely in all parts of the UK and until then we need to encourage those who are eligible to complete the current test, especially in those areas where uptake is low.

We also want to see the age when people are screened in England lowered to 50 to be in line with the screening programme in Scotland. If this happened, hundreds of patients in the 50 - 59 age range would be diagnosed at an early stage and many more lives would consequently be saved.

A step in the right direction is the one-off, flexible sigmoidoscopy or bowel scope screening programme which is currently being rolled out for men and women in England at aged 55.

This was introduced following the results of a long term study funded by Cancer Research UK, which found that a single flexi-sig test reduced the risk of people dying from bowel cancer by 43% and the risk of developing bowel cancer by 33%.

Whilst we celebrate the lives saved by screening over the last decade, we must learn from the past and take the opportunity to massively increase the numbers screened over the next 10 years. This can be done but if it is to save more lives, any increases in screening numbers must be matched by NHS capacity to deal with the increased numbers of patients referred. There is no point in testing more people if those who receive positive results then have to wait months before they can have a diagnostic test and any necessary treatment.

For more information about the NHS screening programme visit