These are the findings of new data presented at the annual National Cancer Intelligence Network (NCIN) conference in Birmingham.
Researchers say the study shows that the NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme is working towards its aim to reduce deaths from bowel cancer.
Using data from the West Midlands Cancer Intelligence Unit, the study looked at bowel cancers diagnosed in the region between January 2006 and September 2011 in people aged 60 – 69 years.
Researchers compared the stage at diagnosis of bowel cancers picked up through screening and those diagnosed from symptoms.
The results showed that 18.5 per cent of bowel cancers detected through screening were at the earliest stages compared with 9.4 per cent of cancers diagnosed through symptomatic routes.**
In contrast, late stage tumours were more common in patients diagnosed through symptomatic routes compared with those diagnosed through screening.***
Sam Johnson, lead researcher based at the West Midlands Cancer Intelligence Unit, said: “When bowel cancer is diagnosed at an earlier stage, it’s easier to treat, has a lower chance of coming back and better survival rates.
“Our research shows that screening can play an important role in improving bowel cancer survival by picking up cancers at an earlier stage.”
Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in the UK – around 40,000 people are diagnosed with the disease each year.
Researchers said that once the NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme has been established for several more years, and has been rolled out completely to people aged 60 – 74 years old, they would expect to see fewer late stage cancers.
Chris Carrigan, head of the NCIN, said: “When bowel cancer is found at the earliest stage, there is an excellent chance of survival, with more than 90 per cent of people surviving the disease at least five years.
“Compared with breast and cervical cancers, bowel cancer tends to have a lower five-year survival rate.
“This study highlights the potential improvements we can make through encouraging more people to take-up their screening invitation so the disease is diagnosed earlier.”
For media enquiries please contact the NCIN press office on 0121 780 6394, the London office on 020 3469 8300 or, out-of-hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059.
Johnson, S. et al,. Dukes staging in screen-detected and symptomatic cases of colorectal cancer in the West Midlands region (2012).
Notes to editors
The study looked at 1,082 screen-detected and 20,612 symptomatic cancers – of these 904 screen-detected cancers and 4,729 symptomatic cancers were diagnosed in people aged 60-69 years.
**Staging data taken from cancer registry records. The earliest stages here are defined as having Dukes Stage A bowel cancer and polyps which are cancerous. Dukes Stage A means that the cancer is only in the innermost lining of the bowel or growing slightly into the muscle layer. Polyps are growths in the bowel wall which can develop into cancer over a long period of time. The NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme aims to find and remove polyps in the general population before they become cancerous, but some of them become cancerous before they are found. These are the polyps which have been included in this study.
167 screen detected tumours were Dukes Stage A, out of a total of 904 tumours. This compares to 446 Dukes Stage A tumours out of 4729 symptomatic tumours.
Polyp cancers were more common in patients with screen-detected bowel cancer (162, 17.9 per cent) than patients diagnosed through symptoms (208, 4.4 per cent).
***1.4 per cent (68) of symptomatic bowel cancer patients had Dukes Stage D cancer compared with 0.33 per cent (3) of screen-detected patients. Dukes Stage D means that the cancer has spread to other organs in the body.
Bowel screening was rolled out in England in 2006 for men and women aged 60 to 69. Screening is now offered to men and women from ages 60 to 74 in England. A Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBt) kit is sent out to people every two years. This detects small amounts of blood in faeces.
In Scotland men and women aged between 50 and 74 years are sent a FOBt kit every two years.
In Wales the NHS is sending out FOBt kits to people between the ages of 60 and 69 every two years. They hope to roll the service out to people aged between 50 and 74 by 2015.