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Annual Review 2010/11 – Saving lives through better screening

by Oliver Childs | Analysis

31 July 2011

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A timeline of bowel screeningOur research has been used to develop and improve the UK’s national screening programmes for breast, bowel and cervical cancer, which save thousands of lives each year.

In this article from our Annual Review, we discuss a new life-saving test – ‘flexi sig’ – that is being added to the bowel cancer screening programme in England. We’re calling for the governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to do the same.

Adding this new test to the current screening programme could be the biggest breakthrough in beating bowel cancer for a generation.

When Jim Scott, a retired BT technician from Dundee, received a home screening test for bowel cancer he didn’t think too much about it.

‘Although I knew it was sensible to complete and send it back, I was feeling on top form, but further tests discovered a cancerous growth. ‘My world just turned upside down. I just couldn’t believe it, but I knew I was lucky that it had been caught when it was.

My cancer was caught quite early, but I did need extensive surgery so it was a tough time. I’ll always be thankful for the screening tests and the incredible skills of everyone who helped me. This new test sounds tremendous and it’s great that it’s going to be added to the screening programme.’

Jim Scott, bowel cancer survivor

Jim Scott, 64, from Dundee. Bowel cancer survivor

Breakthrough test

Bowel cancer is the second biggest cancer killer in the UK, claiming more than 16,000 lives every year. Last year, scientists made a major breakthrough. The results of a 16-year trial we helped to fund showed that a new test could change these statistics forever and potentially save the lives of thousands of people like Jim.

Flexible sigmoidoscopy (flexi sig) cut the number of cases of bowel cancer by a third and reduced deaths from the disease by 43% for those who had the test. Now, thanks in part to our campaigning, the government will add this life-saving test to England’s bowel cancer screening programme. We’re pushing Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to follow England’s example.

As with many cancers, early detection of bowel cancer is vital. Research suggests that over 90% of bowel cancer patients will survive the disease for more than five years if it’s diagnosed at the earliest stage.

The current screening programme was introduced in England in 2006 for 60–69 year olds, and we are already seeing more cases being detected in the over-60s. People in their 60s are sent a kit through the post for them to return stool samples. These are then checked in a lab for traces of blood that could be a sign of cancer, in which case a colonoscopy will be offered.

The new flexi sig test involves a tube with a tiny camera and light at the end. In as little as five minutes it can spot, and remove, polyps (pre-cancerous growths) before they have a chance to develop into cancer. Adding this new test to the current screening programme could be the biggest breakthrough in beating bowel cancer for a generation, preventing thousands of deaths from the disease every year.

Further information