To mark Men’s Health Week (10-16 June) we are considering the benefits for men of bowel cancer screening and asking whether attending for a colonoscopy could be one of the best decisions you’ll ever make.

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, affecting one in 15 men and one in 18 women. More than nine out of 10 new cases (94%) are diagnosed in people over the age of 50 and nearly six out of 10 are in the over 70s, although the disease can strike at any age.

Bowel cancer is treatable if it is diagnosed early. In fact nearly everyone (nine out of 10 people) whose cancer is detected in its earliest stages is likely to survive. Sadly, though, very few bowel cancers are found at this stage. In fact, more than half of bowel cancer cases are diagnosed at a late stage and over 16,000 people die from the disease every year in this country. It is our second biggest cancer killer.

Bowel Cancer Screening

Screening is one of the most effective ways of detecting bowel cancer in the early stages when treatment is most likely to be successful. A recent study from Finland found that while screening could not be shown to have a direct impact on mortality rates, it did reduce the need for the more intensive forms of treatment that are associated with later diagnosis. These included chemotherapy and emergency surgery.

Researchers from the Helsinki University Hospital and the Finnish Cancer Registry wanted to discover whether screening was beneficial for patients who were diagnosed with bowel cancer and what these benefits were. They studied 1400 patients and discovered that surgical removal of an entire cancerous tumour was more likely to be successful in patients who had been screened than it was among the control group of patients. They were also less likely to need chemotherapy or emergency surgery.

The control group (patients who had not been screened) had 50% more emergency surgical procedures, 40% more incomplete tumour removals and 20% more chemotherapy treatments compared to patients who had been screened for bowel cancer. Men were particularly likely to benefit from screening with women showing far fewer of these positive outcomes.

Types of Bowel Cancer Screening

The study lends weight to the argument for bowel cancer screening as a way of detecting cancer in its early stages, as well as pre-cancerous tumours. There are several types of bowel cancer screening.

The NHS routinely offers home testing kits for people aged between 60 and 74. The kits are sent every two years and are used to detect tiny amounts of blood in the stool which can be a sign of cancer. In addition, in some areas it offers one-off bowel scope screening test to people aged 55. Also called a flexible sigmoidoscopy, this type of screening involves looking inside the bowel using a thin, flexible tube with a camera and light at one end. A sigmoidoscopy examines the lower part of the colon, known as the rectum and sigmoid colon.

A colonoscopy is a similar type of screening test but it examines the entire colon rather than just the lower part. This is the most comprehensive type of bowel cancer screening. Private colonoscopies are available to people who are concerned that they might be at risk of bowel cancer or who are experiencing worrying symptoms. Unlike NHS screening, private screening is available to people of any age and can be arranged at a date and time to suit you.

If you are experiencing symptoms that might indicate bowel cancer, you should visit your GP at the earliest opportunity. These include:

  • Bleeding from your bottom or blood in your poo.
  • A persistent and unexpected change in bowel habit.
  • A pain or lump in your tummy.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Extreme tiredness with no obvious cause.

Working with a specialist that can promptly diagnose and monitor your symptoms, will give you the best chance to get back to feeling your best.