Beating bowel cancer together

We respond to new cancer recovery plan for Northern Ireland

Thursday 24 June 2021

We have welcomed a new cancer recovery plan for Northern Ireland, which includes plans to introduce a test in primary care for people with suspected symptoms of the disease. 

The Cancer Recovery Plan was published by Minister of Health Robin Swann MLA this afternoon.

Cancer screening and diagnostic services were heavily disrupted during the coronavirus pandemic, and the bowel cancer screening programme was paused between March and August 2020. The plan highlights that there remains a five-month delay for routine invitations for bowel cancer screening, with no opportunities to catch up presented to date.

The recovery plan comes on the same day figures released by the Department of Health in Northern Ireland show the number of patients starting their first treatment for lower gastrointestinal cancers – which includes bowel cancer – within 62 days of an urgent GP referral for suspected cancer, was just 16.7 per cent in March. This is almost half the figure in January this year (32.6 per cent), and a long way off the NI Government's target of 95 per cent.

It is vital that the Government puts a focus on fully restoring the screening programme as soon as possible and makes a firm commitment to address the backlog in the bowel cancer screening programme, which was impacted in both the first and third waves of Covid-19.

It must also ensure issues faced by cancer services before the pandemic – including diagnostic and treatment waiting times and the equality of access to cancer treatments – are dealt with quickly and safely. Clear accountability is needed for all bowel cancer services.

The implementation of the quantitative faecal immunochemical test (qFIT) into primary care for anybody over the age of 18 who has bowel cancer symptoms is encouraging, and may help to reduce the number of colonoscopies (tests that can diagnose bowel cancer) required.

However, this will also have a further impact on the capacity of the screening programme to address the backlog of people waiting for tests, which needs full consideration. The work done now will be key in achieving the year three recommendation of considering the feasibility of reducing the qFIT referral threshold in bowel cancer screening and/or extension of the age range of the programme, as is already the case in Scotland, and something England and Wales have committed to.

Genevieve Edwards, Chief Executive at Bowel Cancer UK, said: "A recovery plan is essential for ensuring cancer services are running with maximum impact as soon as possible.

"The coronavirus pandemic has had a severe impact on the Health Service, and people who have been waiting for further tests to potentially confirm a bowel cancer diagnosis, or to receive treatment, risk worse outcomes as a result of delays.

"More than 1,100 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer in Northern Ireland each year, and over 400 people die from the disease annually. It's Northern Ireland's second biggest cancer killer, but it doesn't have to be, as it's treatable and curable, especially when it's diagnosed early.

"While we welcome this report, the Northern Ireland Executive must now be clear about how funding and resources will be focused, so people in Northern Ireland with bowel cancer can be assured they will get the screening, diagnostics and treatment they desperately need."

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