Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK. Around one in 20 of us will develop the disease during our lifetime and rates are rising.
Yet, bowel cancer is a survivable disease providing it is caught early. Nine out of 10 people whose cancer is diagnosed at the earliest stage will survive for five years or more.
At present, however, fewer than two out of 10 people receive a diagnosis at this early stage, which means that large numbers of people are walking around with bowel cancer without realising it.
Vital time is being lost, giving cancer an opportunity to spread and reducing the chances of successful treatment.
Strenuous efforts are being made to increase awareness of the disease, to educate people about the steps they can take to prevent it, including screening.
Bowel cancer screening has been shown to be one of the most effective ways not only of detecting the disease early but also of preventing it.
This is because bowel cancer develops slowly from polyps that grow inside the bowel. Over time these polyps can become cancerous but this can be prevented if they are detected and removed early. Even if the polyps are not detected until they have become cancerous, by removing them quickly cancer can be prevented from spreading, giving you a greater chance of recovery.
If the entire colon is screened for bowel cancer the screening test is called a colonoscopy. If only the lower part of the colon (the rectum and sigmoid colon) is screened, the test is called a sigmoidoscopy.
In a recent trial into flexible sigmoidoscopy screening, published in The Lancet, researchers looked at the impact of such screening on a group of people aged around 60. The trial measured this impact over a 17 year period and found that people who had been screened once in this time had a 35% lower risk of developing bowel cancer and a 40% lower risk of dying from the disease than those who hadn’t. For every 220 people screened, this equates to around two fewer cases of bowel cancer and one death prevented. The researchers described bowel cancer screening as “incredibly effective”.
Currently in England, people over the age of 55 are routinely screened for bowel cancer. At 55 they are offered a one-off bowel scope screening test if it is available in their area, and between the ages of 60 and 74, they are invited to participated in home testing.
In addition, growing numbers of people are opting for a private screening for bowel cancer which uses the most thorough and up-to-date screening techniques. Rather than having to wait to be invited for a test at age 55 (or 60 in some areas), people of any age can enjoy the peace of mind of bowel cancer screening at a time and location to suit them.
Over the age of 50, the risk of bowel cancer increases and we encourage everyone in their 50s to consider attending for bowel screening. We use a thin, flexible tube with a small camera and light at the end (a colonoscope) to look inside the lower part of the bowel for polyps. If any are detected they will be removed and sent to the laboratory for testing.
If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms it is important to visit your doctor as they could be a sign of bowel cancer:
- Blood in your poo or bleeding from your bottom
- A persistent change in your bowel habits, such as needing to poo more often, looser poo or constipation
- Unexplained weight loss
- A lump or pain in your bottom or tummy
- Fatigue and breathlessness
- A feeling of needing to poo even after you have been for a poo