Over 12 per cent more bowel cancer cases found in over 60s because of screening

Cancer Research UK

Bowel cancer rates in 60 to 69 year olds went up by more than 12 per cent in England from 2006 to 2008, according to the latest figures from Cancer Research UK.

The increase in cases comes shortly after the introduction of bowel screening in England began to be rolled out nationally in 2006 for men and women aged 60 to 69. Screening is now offered to men and women from ages 60 to 74 in England.

Before the screening programme, bowel cancer rates in this age group were fairly stable, increasing by no more than 2.1 per cent in any two-year period in the last decade. Rates started to increase during 2007 – up by six per cent in 60-69 year olds in England compared with 2006.

Bowel cancer screening uses the faecal occult blood test (FOBT) which is mailed to people to carry out at home. People post a series of small stool samples to a lab to be tested for traces of hidden blood which could be an early sign of bowel cancer.

When bowel cancer is found at the earliest stage, there is an excellent chance of survival and more than 90 per cent of people survive the disease at least five years. But if the tumour is advanced when it is diagnosed, fewer than one in 20 people survive this long.

Catherine Thomson, Cancer Research UK’s head of statistics, said: “These figures are evidence that the bowel cancer screening programme is helping to find cases of bowel cancer sooner.

“Without the screening programme it’s likely that many of these cancers would not have been found for another few years, by which time they would be harder to treat.

“This test can help find bowel cancer at an early stage, before it causes noticeable symptoms.

“It’s expected that when all of the national screening programmes across the UK have been up and running for a couple of years, that similar results will be seen for the whole of the UK. And hopefully the screening programme will soon reduce the number of deaths from bowel cancer.”

Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in the UK - about 40,000 people are diagnosed with the disease each year in the UK.

The biggest risk factor for developing the disease is age. More than eight out of 10 bowel cancers are diagnosed in people aged 60 or over. Family history can also play a role.

People can reduce the risk of developing the disease by keeping a healthy weight, being physically active, eating a healthy diet high in fibre and low in red and processed meat, cutting down on alcohol and not smoking.

Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s director of health information, said: “Our work is at the heart of the progress that has seen survival rates for bowel cancer double over the last 40 years and bowel screening has a key role to play in beating bowel cancer.

“Flexi-scope screening, which we helped develop, will soon become part of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Programme and will save even more lives in the future.”

“It’s really important to take up the current opportunity to use the free bowel screening test when it comes through your door because it can help pick up early signs of bowel cancer.

“Also if you notice changes to your bowel habits like looser or more frequent bowel movements that last more than four weeks or blood in your stools don’t delay in seeing a doctor.”

ENDS

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Notes to Editor

The figure released today are available at http://info.cancerresearchuk.org/cancerstats/types/bowel/incidence/. 

The England age-standardised incidence rates increased from 143 per 100,000 cases in 2006, to 163 per 100,000 in 2008. The number of England cases in 60-69 year olds increased from around 7,100 to 8,500 from 2006 to 2008. The figures represent malignant bowel cancer cases, including those patients with cancerous polyps. They exclude patients who are detected with benign (non cancerous) polyps.

There was very little change in the rates of diagnosis for other age groups between 2006-2008 and for previous years.

The screening programme was rolled out across England from 2006 and was complete by 2009. It is now available to men and women aged 60 to 74. Similar screening programmes have been introduced in Wales in 2008 and Northern Ireland in 2010 for 60-69 year old men and women. And a bowel screening programme was introduced in Scotland in 2007 for men and women aged 50-74.

Many bowel cancers develop from a benign polyp stage that precedes the development of malignant cancer. This offers an important advantage for the early detection of bowel cancer.

Not all polyps will develop into cancer and some polyps do contain cancer when they are examined in the pathology laboratory. People with benign polyps are not classed as cancer patients, but those whose polyps are cancerous are included in these figures. Treatment for removal of polyps is a surgical procedure that has few side effects and does not involve chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

More than 32,600 cases of bowel cancer are diagnosed in England each year.

Flexible sigmoidoscopy (also called the 'Flexi-scope' test) involves placing a thin, flexible tube into the rectum and lower bowel. The tube has a tiny camera and light on the end, allowing the endoscopist to look at the inside wall of the bowel and remove any small growths or 'polyps'.
These symptomless growths can sometimes develop into bowel cancers, so removing them at an early stage can help to prevent the disease from developing. The test can also be used to detect existing bowel cancers so that the patient can receive the appropriate treatment.

Screening

When a person is offered screening they get a testing kit through the post. They smear three small samples of stools onto a piece of treated card and send the card back in a hygienically sealed, prepaid envelope. The results come by post too. Only two out of every 100 people tested are likely to have a positive result. A positive FOB test does not mean you have cancer, but does mean you should have further tests - usually a colonoscopy so that a specialist can see inside your bowel and find what is causing the bleeding.

The government recently announced it would introduce Flexi-scope into the national bowel screening programme alongside FOBT. The recent trial results of this method of detecting and removing benign polyps before they develop into bowel cancer could cut the number of cases of bowel cancer by a third and deaths from the disease by almost half - 43 per cent - among those attending screening – thousands of lives every year.

  • More information on the screening programme.