Help us to stop bowel cancer

What did we learn from our colorectal cancer study day in Cardiff?

This week we invited health professionals from across the UK to the Welsh capital, to take part in our second colorectal cancer study day of the year. We were lucky enough to be joined by a range of engaging and informative speakers. We highlight some of their key take home messages below.

Setting the scene

The day’s chair, Jared Torkington, Consultant Colorectal Surgeon at the University Hospital of Wales, kicked off the event by reminding us that all too often people are still dying from this treatable and curable disease.

Our CEO, Deborah Alsina, painted an important picture of the current bowel cancer landscape. Flagging the importance of early diagnosis, Deborah named endoscopy capacity as the root cause of many diagnostic issues in the UK – a message that was repeated by speakers throughout the day.

And although we know bowel cancer is most common in older adults, Deborah also emphasised the burden of bowel cancer in younger people.  Advanced bowel cancer is another of our priorities, and while access to effective cancer drugs is crucial for these patients, Deborah says to make real headway, we really need to take a holistic pathway-wide approach.

Concluding her talk with some powerful words of wisdom, Deborah said ‘no one individual or sector can stop people dying of bowel cancer, but together we can really make a difference’.

Preventing bowel cancer

Annie Anderson, Professor of Public Health Nutrition at the University of Dundee, also chose some thought-provoking words, as she took to the stage.

‘There isn’t a person diagnosed with cancer that doesn’t wish it could have been prevented’, she said, as she opened her compelling talk.

Lifestyle changes like eating healthily and keeping active could help prevent as much as 50% of all bowel cancers. But Annie says one of the biggest challenges is translating this convincing evidence into actions that could ultimately save lives.

Bowel cancer screening

Hayley Heard, Head of the Welsh Bowel Screening Programme, told us low uptake and limited endoscopy capacity were two of the greatest issues the programme faces. Issues, that sadly ring true across the screening programmes of the other UK nations too.

However, Hayley was hopeful that the introduction of the new Faecal Immunochemical Test (FIT), something we’ve blogged about before, will be a positive step forward and help overcome some of these challenges.

Ongoing challenges 

Limited endoscopy capacity was again reiterated by Richard Roope, a GP and Clinical Champion for the Royal College of General Practitioners. Richard highlighted that we’ve been aware of the issue for a number of years, yet it remains a major stumbling block. Without increased capacity, diagnosing cancer early is to become an ever more complex challenge.

The genetics of bowel cancer

A double-act from the Wales Genetic Service, Karen Bailey and Mark Rogers, illustrated the devastating impact genetic conditions, like Lynch syndrome, can have on many generations of families. That’s why improving identification and awareness of lynch syndrome is something we’ve been calling for as part of our Never too Young Campaign.

Knowing more about genes is also valuable when it comes to treating bowel cancer. Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist at University Hospital Southampton, explained how this so-called ‘personalised medicine’ can make a real difference in determining the choice and success of treatment.

Treating bowel cancer with Surgery

We heard more about treatment from Stephen Fenwick, Consultant Liver Surgeon at Aintree University Hospital. Stephen stressed the importance of a joined up approach for advanced bowel cancer patients.

‘Focusing not on the site of the disease, but on the overall burden of disease’ is key, said Stephen. And that’s why it’s so vital that a wide-ranging team of health professionals are involved in decision making from the word go.

Underlining how the decision to operate can often be a complex one, Consultant Gastroenterologist from Cardiff, Sunil Dolwani, took us through some real patient case studies. Involving patients in decisions, and avoiding unnecessary surgery were two of Sunil’s top tips.

Consultant Colorectal Surgeon James Harwood at the University Hospital of Wales, gave a different perspective, focusing specifically on ‘keyhole’ surgery.

This technique can vastly reduce risk of complications. But again, James urged it’s not appropriate for everyone – so it’s essential to decide the best option for each patient individually.

The personal impacts of bowel cancer

Claire Delduca, Clinical Psychologist at Velindre Cancer Centre, brought home some of the realities of cancer. ‘You have found blood’ was displayed on her bold opening slide, as she asked the audience to imagine how they’d feel.

Claire described cancer as a ‘series of transitions’, highlighting that a good support network is crucial. She reminded us that patients are particularly in need of support at the end of their treatment, when the magnitude of the situation often starts to sink in.

The day was fittingly drawn to a close by Julie Hepburn, who told her moving, personal story of bowel cancer. The journey hasn’t always been plain sailing for Julie, who only came to realise her diagnosis in 2014, following an emergency hospital visit.

And although she suffers from some life changing side effects, Julie is now cancer free and enjoying a real sense of fulfilment through her role as a patient representative on several cancer clinical trials.

By Katherine Nash, Senior Research Communications and Information Officer, Bowel Cancer UK