Early detection vital in tackling bowel cancer

Mike Saunders (left) and his colleagues who tackle bowel cancer at Eastbourne's DGH.
Mike Saunders (left) and his colleagues who tackle bowel cancer at Eastbourne's DGH.

ONE OF the most surprising things to learn about bowel cancer is that it is second biggest killer among cancers in the UK. Only lung cancer claims more lives.

In 2012 around 16,000 people died from bowel cancer – around 44 people every day across the country.

Thankfully, statistics show that death rates have been dropping steadily since the 1970s.

But a recent NHS report predicted there could be as many as 20,000 fewer deaths from bowel cancer over the next 20 years if just 60 per cent of people who are eligible for screening took up the offer.

And, as Michael Saunders explained, early detection is vital when tackling the disease because the condition can lay undiscovered for some time – often until it is almost too late.

Mr Saunders, a resident bowel expert at the DGH, said, “Survival rates overall are about 50 per cent of patients living longer than five years.

“But if we can detect it early that jumps up to around 90 per cent.

“Around one quarter of bowel cancer cases arrive as an emergency which is an indication of a more advanced cancer.”

Part of the reason, he explained, is the adaptability of the bowel itself.

Unlike other areas of the body, the bowel is able to adapt and stretch to accommodate tumours, meaning it can often be a long time before the sufferer experiences problems because of their condition.

In fact, it is not uncommon for surgeons like Mr Saunders to remove up to 30 to 40 centimetres of bowel when operating on cancer sufferers.

And, on top of that, there is the rather sensitive nature of the afflicted area.

Mr Saunders said, “I think there is a culture of embarrassment about bowel problems and disorders.

“I think patients find some things undignified and overcoming that attitude is a big issue for them.”

Established National Health guidelines mean that, once the patient visits their GP, they are seen by a specialist at the hospital within a fortnight.

This, says Mr Saunders, not only speeds up treatment for those who need it, but provides peace of mind for those who don’t have anything to worry about.

“Some people come in with symptoms but do not have cancer. Nobody wants to be waiting a long time to be told they do not need to worry.

“It is about one in 20 who come to us who do end up having cancer. That means that there are 19 people out of 20 who need to be told they do not have it.”

There are factors which make someone more likely to be a sufferer.

Around 80 per cent of bowel cancer sufferers are aged over 60 and it is more prevalent in men than women.

For that reason the NHS has made special efforts to get the message out to those among the most at risk groups.

Just last year a season ticket holder at Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club thanked the club for handing out bowel cancer awareness leaflets at matches after a quick read of one set alarm bells ringing.

He went to see his doctor, was diagnosed with cancer but managed to be treated in time.

Similar schemes are operated across East Sussex – with Mr Saunders adamant that getting the message out to people is, if anything, the most important tool in cutting the numbers of deaths.

“We need to get people talking about it,” he said. “Breast cancer is a condition people are quite comfortable discussing but your bowels are a bit more taboo.

“Cancer of the bowel evolves over months and years, not day and weeks.

“The big challenge is that it can present in a number of ways, some unbeknown to the patient until they start getting symptoms.

“It is more prevalent with age and it is lots to do with lifestyle and diet so healthy living, plenty of exercise and a high-fibre diet can reduce the risks.

“It is important people know what symptoms to look for.

“The main ones change of bowel habit to more frequent and loose stool, bleeding from the rectum, unexplained weight loss and abdominal pain.

“Anyone who experiences any of those things or who is worried should contact their GP.

“It might be nothing, but if it is cancer, the sooner we catch it the better.”

For more information on bowel cancer symptoms or to arrange a screening see your GP.