Will posting your poo save your life?
PUBLISHED: 08:00 12 August 2018 | UPDATED: 08:00 12 August 2018
It's something many of us don't like to talk - or even think - about, but a change in government rules could save tens of thousands of lives among those hit by bowel cancer, writes Paul Geater.
The age at which screening for the disease starts in England is to be lowered from 60 to 50. The UK National Screening Committee recommended screening should be offered to people aged 50 to 74 years old, using the faecal immunochemical home test kit (FIT), following a review of available evidence.
Screening involves sending off a sample of poo which is analysed to see if it contains blood. If there is a positive test the patient is offered a colonoscopy to see whether there is a problem.
If cancer is found, it will probably be at an early stage and can be easily treated – there is an excellent chance of recovery for people caught with early stages of the disease.
My cancer was caught early by screening – in my case because of a genetic issue – and since I revealed my illness I have heard from others whose disease was caught by screening and are now recovering.
BBC newsreader George Alagiah and former health secretary Andrew Lansley are among those who have called for earlier screening for the disease.
Mr Alagiah, who is receiving treatment for bowel cancer for the second time, tweeted: “As I prepare for my 24th infusion of chemo next week, delighted to hear that bowel cancer screening will be available at age 50 in England. About time. It will save lives and hopefully mean fewer patients have to go through the kind of treatment I’ve had.”
Lord Lansley, announcing he was also being treated for the disease in April, urged the Government to cut the age of screening to 50 in the future “in line with international best practice”.
FIT, which is easier to use than the current test and more accurate in detecting potential cancer, is already due to be rolled out in the autumn and will initially be offered to those aged 60 to 74 years old every two years.
It is expected to be gradually rolled out to over-55s, followed by over-50s, but no timetable has yet been given.
Professor Anne Mackie, director of screening at Public Health England (PHE), said: “The risk of bowel cancer rises steeply from around age 50-54 and rates are significantly higher among males than females.
“Starting screening 10 years earlier at 50 will help spot more abnormalities at an early stage that could develop into bowel cancer if not detected.
“The committee recognises that this change will take time but wants the FIT test to be offered to all aged 60 and over as soon as possible, and options considered for a roll-out plan where screening can be offered at 55 and eventually to all aged 50 - ensuring we have the best bowel screening programme possible.”
Men and women in England and Wales are currently offered a one-off bowel scope at the age of 55.
The procedure is expected to be maintained until the new home test is rolled out to this age group.
Public health minister Steve Brine said: “We are determined to make our cancer survival rates the best in the world.
“With the roll-out of FIT as a new bowel screening test from the autumn - a much more convenient and reliable test - we have a real opportunity to reshape our bowel screening programme and potentially detect the stages of bowel cancer much earlier.
“We are now considering opportunities and taking expert advice on how a sustainable, optimal bowel cancer screening programme starting at age 50 can work in the future.”
NHS England and PHE will now consider how to move towards lowering the age of screening.
Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said: “These important recommendations will be carefully considered in the NHS Long Term Plan, which will set out ambitious improvements in cancer prevention and care for the decade ahead.”
Deborah Alsina, chief executive of Bowel Cancer UK, said: “We have campaigned strongly for the screening age to be lowered to 50, in line with Scotland and the rest of the world, for some time now, so we are delighted to see this has been recommended.
“What is urgently required now is a clear plan from NHS England, setting out a sensible but ambitious time frame for implementation.
“This must address how current services will cope with introducing FIT.”
She added: “It will be vital to ensure that the NHS has enough staff and resources to deal with the increase in demand this would have on bowel cancer diagnostic services as a core part of the 10-year funding agreement.
“This will of course save the NHS money over the longer term, as an optimal bowel cancer screening programme can both prevent bowel cancer from developing or detect it early when it is cheaper and easier to treat.”