Ulster's top cancer expert is today urging the Government to introduce routine bowel cancer screening to Northern Ireland without delay, saying the move could treble the number of people surviving the disease each year.
Professor Patrick Johnston spoke of his frustration that screening - which can detect bowel cancer before it even develops - is not yet available here. This is despite bowel cancer being among the biggest cancer killers of both men and women here.
Routine screening is currently being rolled out in England and Scotland where it is offered to men and women between the ages of 60 and 69. But there is no date as yet for its introduction to Northern Ireland.
Colorectal cancer (bowel) is the third most common cancer among women in Northern Ireland, with around 200 deaths each year. It is the fourth most common cancer among men, killing around 220 in a year.
Prof Johnston, regarded as one of the world's top cancer research specialists, said he believed that routine screening would "double or treble" the number of patients surviving the disease "without a shadow of a doubt".
The new Dean of Medicine at Queen's University explained the importance of catching bowel cancer in its early stages.
"It's very important to screen for bowel cancer, particularly in the 55-65 age group, because we can actually begin to pick up small changes, or pre-cursors to cancer known as polyps," he said. "These polyps don't even have to be removed by surgery. They can be cauterised and the patient is then free of the disease in a sense."
Prof Johnston, also director of the world-renowned Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology at Queen's, said "unfortunately too many people are still presenting in the late stages of the disease and the chances of survival diminish greatly".
"Screening matters because it really would dramatically increase the number of patients surviving bowel cancer," he said.
"Patients diagnosed with stage one bowel cancer have a 90-95% cure rate. Those with stage two cancer have an 80% cure rate. Unfortunately most patients present with stage three and the cure rate can drop to as low as 30-35%. That's a dramatic difference."
Prof Johnston also highlighted the life-saving importance of the current breast and cervical screening programmes.
"We need to get bowel cancer screening in Northern Ireland. We have very robust cervical and breast cancer screening programmes in place. There's no reason why we shouldn't have the same for colorectal cancer.
"The clinical evidence is just too strong to ignore. In my opinion, the number of bowel cancer patients surviving the disease would double or treble without a shadow of a doubt.
"We need to get the programme rolled out in Northern Ireland as soon as possible. It should have been here yesterday."
A spokeswoman from the Department of Health said "planning for the introduction of bowel cancer screening is under way".
"Work is also ongoing with the bowel symptomatic service to increase its capacity so that it can manage in a timely way the new cases of bowel cancer which would be identified as a result of screening," she said.
"Decisions on when screening will begin will be taken as part of the current Comprehensive Spending Review and announced shortly."
Warning signs of bowel cancer
- Bleeding from the bottom without any obvious reason
- A persistent change in bowel habit to looser or more frequent motions
- Tummy pain, especially if severe
- A lump in your tummy