This site is intended for health professionals only

Bowel cancer screening 'must improve'

Wide variations and poor uptake of bowel cancer screening is leading to late cancer diagnosis and preventable deaths, a leading charity has claimed. 

New figures, released by Beating Bowel Cancer, have revealed a 24% difference between the highest and lowest areas of uptake for bowel cancer screening across England. 

Overall uptake for bowel cancer screening in England is 58%, which lags behind other cancer screening programmes including a 72% uptake for breast cancer screening2 and 79% for cervical3. 

The charity, which obtained the figures through a parliamentary question, said thousands of lives could be saved if uptake was increased.

Mark Flannagan, chief executive of Beating Bowel Cancer, said: “We must do better than this; we simply can't have the situation where outcomes depend on where you live. These statistics show unacceptable variations across the country that can't be explained. We know that bowel cancer screening saves lives by leading to earlier diagnosis, yet in some areas fewer than half of those eligible are actually taking it up.

“The majority of people are still being diagnosed with bowel cancer too late when it's more advanced and difficult to treat. More than 90% of cases can be treated successfully when caught in the early stages, so if uptake was to increase to be equal to cervical cancer screening, we have the potential to save thousands of lives."

Professor Julietta Patnick, director of the NHS Cancer Screening Programmes said: "We are pleased to support Bowel Cancer Awareness Month and the 'Lift the Lid' campaign, and to highlight the importance of bowel cancer screening.

The risk of bowel cancer increases with age, with over 80% of bowel cancers arising in people who are 60 or over. That is why bowel cancer screening is so crucial, as it can detect bowel cancer at an early stage in people with no symptoms, when treatment is likely to be more effective.

"Therefore, we recommend that people aged 60 to 74 return their bowel screening test kit when invited to do so and attend our new bowel scope programme when invited."

The current bowel cancer screening tests, called faecal occult blood tests (FOB), are sent in the post to everyone aged between 60 and 74 every two years. The latest figures publicly available show that between July 2006 and December 2010, 7,065 cancers were detected through the programme and over 40,000 patients had undergone polyp removal4. The targets set for the programme is 60% uptake.

Almost 41,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year and it's the UK's second biggest cancer killer. Screening helps to detect polyps, which are non-cancerous growths, which may develop into cancer over time. Polyps can bleed and the test identifies tiny amounts of blood that normally can't be seen.