Britain facing bowel cancer crisis, warns major charity

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

Thumbnail for 6447By: Luisa Metcalfe


Inspirational teenager Stephen Sutton travelled the world, raised millions for charity and became a household name all before he died from bowel cancer on May 14 at the age of 19.

The Staffordshire teenager’s fight for life became national news with his fund-raising drive for Teenage Cancer Trust and its hashtag #thumbsupforstephen. His campaign has now smashed its original target of £1million and has raised more than £4million.

The remarkable young man accomplished so much in his short life, yet when a tumour was detected when he was 15, it was already too late.

Now ahead of his funeral tomorrow, Bowel Cancer UK is calling for new GP guidelines to increase the chance of catching the disease early.

The main test for bowel cancer, which killed World Cup hero Bobby Moore, is a colonoscopy, in which the lower bowel is examined internally with a camera.

In 2013/14, more than a million (1,116,000) endoscopy procedures, when the body is examined internally with a camera, and this number is set to rise to more than a million and a half (1,482,000) in 2016/17.

Nearly 16,000 men and women die of bowel cancer every year, making it the second most common cause of cancer death in the UK.

Yet in its report Diagnosing Bowel Cancer Early: Right Test, Right Time, the charity warns that hospitals are woefully under equipped to deal with the rise in demand for these life-saving tests.

It also claims patients struggle to be referred urgently and then are forced to sit on long waiting lists.

At the moment, GPs refer patients for this test if they have “alarm” or “high risk” symptoms such as rectal bleeding but only half of bowel cancer patients have these symptoms so wouldn’t qualify for an urgent referral.

Deborah Alsina, Chief Executive of Bowel Cancer UK, said, “We are calling for GP guidelines to be liberalised so that GPs can use their judgment and refer patients even when their symptoms do not point directly to bowel cancer.

“It’s a tragedy that more people are not referred for endoscopy sooner.  After all, early diagnosis saves lives.”

Waiting times for endoscopies are a major cause for concern, with significant disparities between regions. For instance, in Wales, 15 per cent of patients wait between eight and 14 weeks, with 26 per cent waiting for 14 weeks for a colonoscopy.

However in England less than two per cent wait more than the recommended waiting time.

“Waiting times for some patients in parts of the UK, such as Wales, are bordering on scandalous,” said Deborah Alsina. “We can’t increase waiting times as many people are already waiting too long, so clinical commissioning groups need to commission more endoscopy capacity and endoscopy units need to ensure they are as  efficient as possible so they can  perform more endoscopies.

“As we do more endoscopies, it is also vital that quality of service is not compromised in any way, to ensure that people have the right test first time and the test is of the highest quality.”

Another area of concern is that some doctors are still using barium enemas to detect bowel cancer when this old fashioned procedure has long been discredited.

“Barium enema must be ruled out as a diagnostic test for bowel cancer altogether,” said Deborah Alsina.  “It is an inferior test which is still used by some clinicians to detect polyps and tumours but it has a much higher rate of missed cancer than other tests.

“It cannot be right that some Trusts have ruled out the use of barium enema altogether, yet it continues to be used in other areas. Patients need confidence that they will not be referred for an inferior test simply because of where they live.”