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Former health secretary urges improved screening after bowel cancer diagnosis

Andrew Lansley announced a new ‘bowel scope’ test shortly after being made health secretary in 2010.

Former health secretary Andrew Lansley has called on the Government to improve bowel cancer screening, after revealing he is being treated for the disease.

The Conservative peer said cuts “wrongly” imposed by the Treasury had frustrated the delivery of a screening programme he introduced in 2010, which could have ensured he was diagnosed earlier.

Lord Lansley has been told by doctors he has “every reason to hope” his cancer can be effectively treated, but said he had been “lucky” it was spotted nine months ago.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, he called for action to ensure that future sufferers do not have to rely on chance for an early diagnosis, which is crucial to their survival.

It comes after BBC newsreader George Alagiah, who is receiving treatment for bowel cancer for the second time, said the disease could have been caught sooner with earlier screening.

Lord Lansley, 61, announced a new “bowel scope” test to detect signs of cancer among 55-year-olds shortly after being made health secretary in 2010.

He said the scheme was intended to be rolled out across England by the end of 2016, but fell foul of cuts to Health Education England (HEE) imposed by the Treasury in 2014.

He wrote: “The bowel scope is only available to about 50% of the population.

“A lack of endoscopists and difficulties with IT have frustrated delivery.

“Bowel scope could save 3,000 lives a year, but training and recruiting endoscopists and support staff will take years.

“Health Education England is getting more resources for training more NHS staff, reversing the Treasury-imposed cut to the HEE budget in 2014 – when it was treated, wrongly, as a budget not within the NHS ‘ring-fence’.”

I want to know that for others like me in future... it really isn't about luck. Lord Lansley

Lord Lansley said that he was “lucky” that his cancer was spotted nine months ago, when spreading back pain and “nagging” from his wife persuaded him to see his GP.

The diagnosis was stage three tumours which had not spread to his liver, giving him “every reason to hope to be among the more than half of cancer patients who can look forward to long-term survival”.

But he said that if the bowel scope scheme had gone ahead as planned, he would have automatically been called in for screening.

He wrote: “I want to know that for others like me in future, with better knowledge about symptoms, with earlier improved screening in place, and with a new focus on personalised preventative medicine, it really isn’t about luck.”

Deborah Alsina, chief executive of Bowel Cancer UK and Beating Bowel Cancer, said: “As Lord Lansley rightly highlights we need to urgently invest in both the endoscopy and pathology workforce to ensure we can deliver an optimal bowel cancer screening programme as this has been shown to be the best method of detecting bowel cancer early.

“Implementation of the new Faecal Immunochemical Test (Fit), which had been due to roll out this April but is now significantly delayed, must be a priority for the Government.

“Each month we delay implementation, more people are put at risk of a late diagnosis making their chance of long-term survival harder.”

Lord Lansley welcomed the Government’s commitment to Fit, a new home-testing kit, which he said has the potential to detect more cancers while requiring fewer endoscopies than bowel scope.

“Switching the screening programme over to using Fit should now be an immediate focus, with a roll-out this year and the development of a plan for optimising its use in future as further workforce capacity becomes available,” he wrote.

He called on future plans to include cutting the age for screening to 50 “in line with international best practice”.

A Department for Health and Social Care 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 rollout 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.”

A Downing Street spokesman said: “The Prime Minister is sad to hear of Lord Lansley’s diagnosis and wishes him well in his treatment.

“The Prime Minister has been clear that cancer treatment is a priority for the Government. We want to make sure that the best treatments are provided.

“Our cancer screening programme is world-class. Around 7,000 people are alive today who would not have been had mortality rates stayed the same since 2010.

“But we absolutely recognise that we want to do better and are introducing a new and improved bowel screening – the Fit test. We have also committed £200 million over the next two years to improve early diagnosis and care.”

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