Earlier screening for bowel cancer 'will save lives and NHS money'
Screening people for bowel cancer from the age of 50 instead of 60 could dramatically boost a person's chances of survival, a charity has said.
At present, screening for bowel cancer starts at age 60 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but those living in Scotland are screened from the age of 50.
The charity Beating Bowel Cancer is now calling for the age limit to be lowered to 50 across the board to boost the number of people diagnosed early.
At present, around 4,600 men and women in their 50s are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year, even though they do not fall into the screening programme.
Beating Bowel Cancer believes many more cases of bowel cancer could be picked up if screening was in place, and those who are diagnosed could have their cancer detected at an earlier stage.
It argues people are currently subjected to a "diagnosis lottery".
Figures show people diagnosed at an early stage (stage one) have a 97% survival rate. But if the cancer is picked up later (stage four), then survival odds drop to 7%.
Data also shows people are far more likely to be diagnosed at stage one through screening than through being referred by their GP or through A&E, which happens to many people who are diagnosed in the later stages.
Judith Brodie, director of services at Beating Bowel Cancer, said: "Bowel cancer is the UK's second biggest cancer killer and it's time we changed the odds for patients in their 50s in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
"It's shocking that they are not being given the same opportunity for an early diagnosis as those in Scotland, and they're being badly let down.
"With the increase in the ageing population, there is no excuse for allowing this inequality to carry on, when having more people screened early will not only save lives but also save the NHS money."
Figures from the charity show treating a patient with stage one bowel cancer averages £3,373. But treating stage four costs the NHS £12,519.
Cancer Research UK predicts that by 2035, 53,646 people of all ages will be diagnosed with bowel cancer each year - 10% of total cancer cases.
More than 41,000 people are currently diagnosed each year.
Lauren Backler, 26, from Eastbourne, who lost her mother Fiona to bowel cancer at the age of 55, said: "If we lived in Scotland, my mum would have already been screened three times before she was finally diagnosed, increasing her chance of being diagnosed earlier and increasing her chance of survival.
"It breaks my heart to know that I lost my mum to this disease when she could have survived if they had caught it early enough - and that more people in their 50s will also lose their lives unnecessarily each year unless the age is reduced."
Bowel cancer survivor, Brian Hedley, 61, from Morpeth, said: "If bowel cancer screening had been available to me from the age of 50, the disease would have been caught much sooner.
"It took over two years for a diagnosis to be made, yet we know that bowel cancer is treatable and curable if identified promptly.
"Who wouldn't want to lower their risk of dying from bowel cancer by taking part in a screening programme from the earliest opportunity?
"Bowel cancer screening saves lives at best; at the very least, it improves the life chances of those diagnosed with it at an early stage."
The current screening test is the faecal occult blood test (FOB), which is posted to people's homes. It detects blood hidden in small samples of poo, with further tests recommended if blood is detected.
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "We want to lead the world in cancer care, and timely, effective screening is key to achieving that goal.
"That's why the roll-out of an additional test is well under way, which will mean all men and women in England are invited for bowel scope screening around the time of their 55th birthday.
"This is in addition to the routine bowel cancer home testing programme already in place for people aged 60 and older."