Beating bowel cancer together

New research supports GPs to diagnose young patients with serious bowel disease

The University of Exeter, in partnership with our Never Too Young campaign, Durham University and North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust, today (Tuesday 28 March) publish new research and a risk assessment tool to support GPs to identify the symptoms of a serious bowel condition for patients aged under-50. 

Diagnosing serious bowel disease is a challenge

Over 2,500 people under 50 are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year in the UK, whilst across all ages as many as 13,000 people are diagnosed with IBD. Sadly these numbers continue to rise year on year.

Bowel symptoms are common – accounting for one in 12 GP appointments – but most symptoms won’t be caused by serious disease. Deciding whose symptoms could be caused by bowel cancer or IBD can therefore be a complex task, so it’s not surprising that these diseases aren’t always at the forefront of a GP’s mind.

Delays can have a devastating impact

We frequently hear of young patients facing lengthy diagnostic delays – with many stressful trips to their GP before reaching a diagnosis. These patients are more likely to be diagnosed in an emergency and have a worse prognosis. It’s crucial that more is done to support GPs to diagnose as soon as possible, at a time when treatment has the best chance of success.

Making sure GPs can recognise the right signs and symptoms in younger patients is fundamental to speeding up diagnosis. And that’s why this new risk tool is so important. Based on signs and symptoms, the results of a physical examination and a blood test, the tool calculates a risk score which can help GPs decide who should be referred for more tests.

The risk tool has the potential to reduce delay for thousands of patients in the future, acting as a prompt to remind GPs of the possibility of serious disease.

Hannah’s story

We regularly hear heart breaking stories of young patients and their families devastated by bowel cancer. Sadly, many of the issues highlighted above ring true for countless young patients, like Hannah.

At 19, Hannah Lyson was preparing for an adventure of a lifetime across America. She’d been experiencing persistent bowel symptoms for some time which she was keen to get resolved before she set off on her big trip. 

Hannah’s symptoms weren’t new - she’d been experiencing constipation, cramps, backache, nausea and tiredness over the course of several years and like many other young patients, was initially told she had IBS. But as time passed by Hannah’s symptoms continued to get worse and it became apparent that something more serious was happening.

After many frustrating trips to the doctor - on each occasion feeling as though she wasn’t getting any closer to the answers she needed - Hannah was eventually referred for further investigation.

By the time Hannah finally received her diagnosis of bowel cancer in May 2016, the cancer was already at an advanced stage and had spread to her liver. And devastatingly, despite surgery and chemotherapy, Hannah passed away in January 2017. 

Hannah was passionate about raising awareness of bowel cancer in young people and her parents Mark and Beth continue to share her story to spread the message that you really are never too young. They hope that by raising awareness and supporting important research like this, they can help prevent families in the future going through a similar heartache.

Hope for the future

It’s crucial that we find more effective ways to identify and diagnose patients like Hannah in the future. And the development of this risk assessment tool is an important step in the right direction - but we can’t stop here.

We now need to make sure GPs across the country know about, have access to and are regularly using this potentially life-saving tool. 

By Kate Nash, Senior Research Communications and Information Officer 

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