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Levels of bowel cancer detection “unnacceptable”

April 2015. Thousands of lives and millions of pounds are being lost because bowel cancer is being detected too late, according to the UK charity Beating Bowel Cancer.

In a BBC health report this week – in which the charity quotes regional diagnostic figures from the National Cancer Intelligence Network's Cancer Commissioning Toolkit – it was revealed that the level of bowel cancer screening in the eligible 60- to 74-year-old age group stands at only 60%, despite a bowel cancer screening programme making such tests freely available in England.

Early detection is critical to the outcome of all cancer treatments. In the case of bowel cancer, sufferers have a 97% chance of survival if the disease is detected at its earliest stage. If it is diagnosed at an advanced stage, however, that survival rate drops to only 7%. Around 41,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK each year, with 16,000 dying from the disease.

While part of the issue relates to individuals not coming forward for NHS screening, it was also revealed that there was wide variation from region to region. In some cases, only a third of bowel cancers were diagnosed before the disease had spread to other parts of the body. Beating Bowel Cancer have estimated that 3,200 lives could be saved each year if every NHS region performed as well as those with the best track record.

Mark Flannagan, chief executive of Beating Bowel Cancer, is quoted as saying: "It's unacceptable that there are CCGs [Clinical Commissioning Groups] in England that diagnose less than one in three patients at an early stage. If they all performed as well as the best, thousands of lives could be saved and millions of pounds could be freed up to be used for other bowel cancer treatments, which patients are frequently told are unaffordable.”

Justin Davies, Consultant Colorectal Surgeon at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge and Clinical Adviser at Check4Cancer, comments: “This highlights two key issues. First, it is clear that people are not being made as aware as they could be about the risks they may be subject to, the symptoms they need to look out for and also the services that are available to them on the NHS. We need to ensure that people are better educated so they are properly equipped to make the right decisions regarding their health.

“Secondly, it demonstrates the crucial importance of early detection to survival. Greater awareness and more widely available bowel cancer checks would not only save many lives, but, as Mark Flannagan quite rightly identifies, would make better use of NHS resources. Treatment at a late stage not only has a far lower chance of a positive outcome, it also costs far more. This is precisely why Check4Cancer works to raise awareness and make targeted testing available in the workplace as an employee benefit. In fact, everyone benefits – the individual, the business and the NHS.”

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