Why bowel cancer screening should start at 50
Beating Bowel Cancer is campaigning for the screening age in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to be lowered from the age of 60 to 50, to bring it in line with Scotland.
There are almost 8 million people in their 50s in England, Wales and Northern Ireland currently being denied the opportunity of an early bowel cancer diagnosis through the national screening programme, when it can be successfully treated.
Currently the screening age starts at 60 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland but 50 in Scotland.
Following Beating Bowel Cancer’s call in January for the screening age to be equalised throughout the UK, nearly 7,000 letters have been sent to MPs from cancer patients, their families and supporters urging them to support the change. They want to ensure that those in their 50s are given the same opportunity to be diagnosed at an early stage as the over 60s in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and those age 50 plus in Scotland.
Around 41,000 people a year are diagnosed with bowel cancer and more than 1 in 10 of them are in their 50s. However, only those in Scotland are currently given the same chance of an early diagnosis as the over 60s.
If diagnosed at an early stage 97% of cases can be successfully treated but this drops to just 7% if diagnosed at a late stage. You’re far more likely to be diagnosed at an early stage through screening than you are via your GP or A & E.
When there is a screening programme for a type of cancer, incidence rates increase rapidly at the age screening starts, as more cases are identified before any symptoms are evident. Breast cancer screening starts at the age of 50 and around 11,000 women in their 50s are diagnosed each year, including those who are diagnosed through screening. There are over 4,500 bowel cancers diagnosed in people in their 50s each year in the UK. However because there is no bowel cancer screening available for that age group except in Scotland, many more are not diagnosed until they are screened in their 60s when the cancer is more advanced. If they were screened from 50 as with breast cancer, significant numbers would be picked up at an earlier stage of their cancer, when they have a far higher chance of survival.
Why is it considered worth screening those in their 50s for breast cancer throughout the UK but not for bowel cancer – the UK’s second biggest cancer killer due to late diagnosis? This makes even less sense when you consider that diagnosing more at an early stage in their 50s would decrease the numbers diagnosed at a later stage in their 60s, saving both lives and money.
Campaigner Lauren Backler, 26, from Eastbourne, who lost her mother Fiona to bowel cancer at the age of 56, said: “If we lived in Scotland my mum would have already been screened three times before she was finally diagnosed, increasing her chance of being diagnosed earlier and increasing her chance of survival.
“It breaks my heart to know that I lost my mum to this disease when she could have survived if they had caught it early enough – and that more people in their 50s will also lose their lives unnecessarily each year unless the age is reduced.
“I campaigned for this and the issue was raised in Parliament but its progress has stalled. We must all get behind Beating Bowel Cancer’s campaign to make sure people in their 50s throughout the UK are screened for this awful disease.”
“I’d urge all the 50-year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, their families and friends – and all those who will one day be in that age group – to support this change in screening to ensure that the odds are on their side in the future.”
Find out how you can support the campaign on our petition page.