Every 30 minutes, a loved one dies from bowel cancer in the UK, making it the second highest cause of cancer deaths.
With almost 43,000 people diagnosed with bowel cancer every year in the UK, it is the fourth most common cancer in the country. The disease, also referred to as colorectal cancer, can affect anyone of any age, although more than nine out of ten new cases (94%) are diagnosed in people over the age of 50.
Almost half the people who don’t survive bowel cancer are diagnosed in the later stages — at which point the disease is harder to treat. Delays in diagnosis and treatment are a major issue, as Genevieve Edwards, the Chief Executive at Bowel Cancer UK, tells ITN Business. She’s on a mission to change these outcomes and ensure a future where nobody dies of the disease.
“When people are experiencing symptoms, our research shows that quite often they’ll delay four to six months before they go to their GP,” Genevieve explains in our interview, for Shaping the Future of Cancer Care.
“Part of that is embarrassment and ‘oh, it’ll clear up and it’s nothing to worry about’ — so that’s the first thing we have to change.”
Genevieve explains that when people do decide to go to their GP, there are delays in getting an appointment. And when it comes to GP referrals, there’s an issue of post pandemic backlog, with big waiting times.
“That’s something that we’ve been really pressing to have changed; to get more people in those diagnostic services, and more kit, so we can get more people through.”
If you’re a younger person, under the age of 50, it can be even harder for people to get diagnosed because it’s much rarer, says Genevieve. “Understandably, GPs will rule out a number of other things first, so by the time they get to bowel cancer, that cancer is often much harder to treat.”
Success stories: The UK’s screening programme
One positive to emerge is the UK’s bowel cancer screening programme. The screening programme uses home tests called the Faecal Immunochemical Test (FIT), which looks for hidden blood in poo. If you’re registered with a GP and within the eligible screening age range, a test is automatically posted to you, so you can complete it in the privacy of your own home.
“Depending on where you live in the UK, from between the age of 50 and 60, you’ll be sent a screening test through the post every two years,” explains Genevieve. “This can pick up cancers before there are any symptoms, so if you’re diagnosed within the screening programme, your chances of survival are really good. We’ve seen not only lives being saved through the screening programme but also, cancers prevented.”
Genevieve points out that this is where there’s a gap in people’s understanding: Bowel cancer is not only treatable and curable, if it’s diagnosed early, it can be prevented — by picking up changes in the bowel that are called polyps, that sometimes bleed. These can be removed before a cancer’s even developed.
To improve outcomes, Genevieve believes three things need to happen.
“We need to get the test down to age 50 — wherever you live in the UK, and make the test more sensitive, to pick up more cancers. Secondly, if everybody did the test (and most people do), that again would save more lives. [We need to] persuade that last 30% of people to do the test…”
Thirdly, is the role of genomics.
“Genomics is playing a huge part in understanding people’s tumours,” says Genevieve, “and knowing which ones will respond best to which treatment. Getting personalised treatment to people is going to be a real game-changer. “
She also believes that having more conversations about cancer is crucial. People are talking increasingly openly about certain cancers, like breast cancer, but bowel cancer still maintains more taboo.
The key thing, Genevieve believes, is for people to know — and talk about — what’s normal for them. If something’s changed; to go and talk to the doctor about it.
“Normalising those conversations would go a long way to ruling out the embarrassment that stops people from acting,” she says. “What’s one of the big flags from bowel cancer is a persistent change in your bowel habit. Or bleeding from your bottom, or blood in your poo. If you know what’s normal for you, you can recognise what’s not.”
Her final message: If that test kit comes through the door, just do it. Don’t delay. It could save your life.
Head to the Shaping the Future of Cancer Care programme page for more insights, interviews and innovations in the realm of cancer care.