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.
Judith Brodie, Interim Chief Executive at Beating Bowel Cancer said: “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. So it’s shocking that currently there are millions of people in their 50s in the UK being denied the chance of an early diagnosis via screening.
The charity cites the example of breast cancer, for which screening across the UK begins at age 50. As with all cancers for which there is an established screening programme, incidence of breast cancer increases rapidly at the age screening starts, as pre-existing cases are identified. Each year in the UK around 11,000 women in their 50s are diagnosed with breast cancer, including those identified through screening. There are over 4,500 bowel cancers diagnosed in 50-59 year olds each year in the UK. However because universal bowel cancer screening is only available to this age group in Scotland, many more are not diagnosed until they are screened in their 60s when the cancer is more advanced, more expensive to treat and the outlook considerably less promising.
“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. Apparently this is recognised in Scotland, so why not across the UK?” asked Judith Brodie.
Bowel cancer patient Simon Hawkins said: “I was diagnosed at the age of 53. It never occurred to me that I was at risk from bowel cancer and screening from 50 would have been a complete life-changer for me, as now at 61 I find myself in remission but had to have my right kidney, gall bladder, duodenum and half of my pancreas removed, as well as a bowel and liver resection. But I was lucky, I survived and I’m leading a happy life; many others didn’t. So I’m supporting this campaign for all those in their 50s now and in the future”.
Judith Brodie added: “We’re gratified at the support our campaign is receiving – including from many parliamentarians – but there is still a long way to go. Cost pressures are often quoted as the reason for not extending the programme, but this doesn’t acknowledge the savings to the NHS that would be made by catching more cancers early: on average, four early stage cases can be treated at the same cost as a single late stage diagnosis. We believe that by making this change, the NHS can save both lives and money and bring an end to much needless heartache.”
You can sign up to Beating Bowel Cancer’s campaign here