Beating bowel cancer together

We call on UK Governments to tackle rise in bowel cancer incidence

Two landmark research studies published today (Friday 17 May) in The Lancet and Gut have shown that the number of people diagnosed with bowel cancer under 50 is increasing in many countries around the world, including the UK. 

Since 2013 our flagship campaign Never Too Young, has been leading the change for younger bowel cancer patients by raising awareness amongst the public and clinical community; campaigning for the identification of those at high risk of developing bowel cancer at a younger age (such as those with Lynch syndrome) and developing specific materials to meet the information and support needs of this frequently overlooked group. Never Too Young is now a global phenomenon and has been adopted by organisations in the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. 

Every year over 2,500 younger people are diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK. We know that younger bowel cancer patients have a very different experience of diagnosis, treatment and care. They are more likely to be diagnosed in an emergency situation and at a later stage, when the disease is much harder to treat. Whilst the actual numbers remain small (6% of the 42,000 diagnosed with bowel cancer every year in the UK) this is an important group that can no longer be overlooked.      

Deborah Alsina MBE, Chief Executive of Bowel Cancer UK, says: "This research is crucial in confirming that the number of people under 50 with bowel cancer is on the rise.

“The time has passed where it is in any way acceptable to tell someone under 50, who presents with symptoms, that they are too young for bowel cancer. Two years ago we published, in partnership with the Universities of Exeter and Durham, a risk assessment tool to support GPs in deciding who to refer for diagnostic testing. Yet the NHS has so far failed to implement this, or to clarify the best first-line test for younger patients with symptoms. This must be remedied.

“This research also highlights that incidence of bowel cancer has significantly decreased in the 50-74 age groups in some countries. This is most likely due to bowel cancer screening, but whilst progress has been made in the UK, it is not as significant. This highlights the need for implementation of an optimal screening programme in the UK. This includes the full roll-out of the new, simpler to use bowel cancer screening test (known as the Faecal Immunochemical Test) in all four nations.  We must have a clear plan for improving the sensitivity of the test so that fewer cancers are missed and more pre-cancerous growths are identified, which will reduce incidence of the disease. It is also imperative that we have a clear time-bound plan for reducing the screening age in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to 50 in line with Scotland and international best practice.

“Bowel cancer does not need to be the UK’s second biggest cancer killer, it can be prevented or cured. We need action now to recognise the changing nature of the disease and to put in place measures that enable the whole population to benefit from the opportunity of an early diagnosis when the disease is most treatable.”

Bowel Cancer UK are calling on UK Governments to take action to reduce incidence and mortality of bowel cancer, including in the under 50s, by:

  • Urgently setting out a timetable for reducing the screening age to 50 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and for improving the sensitivity of the test so we can best prevent bowel cancer from developing, or detect it early.
  • Improve access to effective diagnosis for younger bowel cancer patients by implementing the risk assessment tool for GPs developed by the Universities of Exeter and Durham, and consider using the faecal Immunochemical test as a triage method to further diagnostic testing.
  • Invest and collaborate with international partners on research to further understand why incidence of bowel cancer is increasing in under 50s. 
  • Implement better identification and surveillance of high risk groups more likely to develop bowel cancer at a younger age, including testing all bowel cancer patients in line with clinical guidance for Lynch syndrome – a genetic condition that increases the lifetime risk of bowel cancer to up to 80%. 


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