Deborah Alsina: Spotlight on bowel cancer

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I want to put a spotlight on the urgent need to reduce the number of people in the Lothians and Scotland generally
who die each year from bowel cancer.

Bowel cancer is a major public health concern in Scotland, as there is a higher rate of the disease than in
most other countries in the developed world.

It is the third most-commonly diagnosed cancer in both men and women, with approximately 4,000 people being diagnosed each year in Scotland (41,000 across the UK).

The majority of people diagnosed are over the age of 50 but increasing numbers of people in their 20s, 30s and 40s are also diagnosed each year.

According to recent research, more than six per cent of bowel cancer patients in Scotland died within a month of being diagnosed. These patients were more likely to be elderly, deprived, have poor general health, have more advanced, aggressive cancers, and be admitted to hospital as an emergency.

This contributes to making bowel cancer the second-biggest cancer killer, but it shouldn’t be, because it is, in fact, preventable, treatable and
curable.

The report we have just launched, Spotlight on Scotland, contains several recommendations about reducing these preventable deaths can be achieved.

Early diagnosis of bowel cancer is vitally important, as nine out of ten people will survive if it is diagnosed at its earliest stage. Therefore, raising awareness of the disease is critical, so that people understand and act upon any symptoms quickly.

As the symptoms of the disease can be quite vague, bowel cancer screening is also very important as it can detect both pre-cancerous growths called polyps or early-stage disease before it becomes symptomatic, either preventing the disease from developing or detecting it early.

Unfortunately, uptake of screening in the Lothians is still too low at less than 55 per cent, so we welcome the Scottish Government’s Detect Cancer Early bowel cancer campaign as a good step forward. Of course, that alone is not enough.

We also urge the Government and NHS to support and empower GPs to refer more people through for diagnostic tests so that bowel cancer can be ruled out quickly or diagnosed early when treatment is most
successful.

This will, of course, require sustained investment in high-quality endoscopy services to meet rising demand, yet savings will be made if patients are diagnosed earlier when they require less treatment.

Improved access to bowel cancer treatments is also crucial, and we believe that every patient should be offered the best treatments available, based on clinical judgment and not cost, age or postcode.

Patients should then also be supported in making an informed choice about whether this is the right option for them.

Too many people continue to die unnecessarily from bowel cancer, and we want to see this dramatically reduced. We would also like to see a renewed focus on people diagnosed with advanced disease to enable them to live longer with a better quality of life.

We should also ensure that all patients benefit from a positive experience of their treatment and care including having access to a clinical nurse specialist.

We are committed to working with the Government, the NHS and other charities to implement the proposals outlined in our report so together we can save lives from bowel cancer.

• Deborah Alsina is chief executive of Bowel Cancer UK

‘When they told me i had a tumour I was prepared’

“MY first bowel screening test at 50 years old was clear but when I did the test again two years later in November 2010, the results came back positive,” recalls Dorothy Byers, 54, who has four children and lives with her partner Kenny in Corstorphine. “It stated that blood had been found and that a colonoscopy was required. I had the letter on the Monday and a call on Tuesday to start the process. It all happened very quickly.

“When I was told I had bowel cancer it wasn’t a surprise. I had a colonoscopy on December 1, 2010, and during the procedure I could see a dark shadow on the screen and I could hear the medical staff talking. So when they told me I had a tumour I was prepared for the news.

“I was very lucky that it was caught early. I still think it’s amazing that they could diagnose me with something that I had no obvious visible symptoms of so quickly and efficiently.

“I lived in Hong Kong for many years so if I hadn’t moved back to Scotland then I might not have been diagnosed in time.

“The reaction I received from my family and friends to the news was really varied. I talked to people quite openly about having bowel cancer.

“Most were shocked but I was determined to remain positive. On December 17, I had an operation that took away approximately 30cm of my bowel along with the tumour. I left the hospital after a couple of days and my initial recovery was very good, although it did take me a bit longer to recuperate at home. I then went on to have seven sessions of chemotherapy over six months.

“I’m now completely fine but it took a while for my bowel to settle down and I do go to the toilet more often. I still need to go for check-ups every six months and I do get nervous – but they’ve always come back clear. Before I was diagnosed with cancer I was terrified by the thought of it.

“In particular I thought that chemotherapy would be the worst thing in the world to have to go through.

“I was very frightened by this but I began to see it as another part of the process towards saving my life.

“The experience has taught me that going through chemotherapy and having cancer is not as bad as I thought it would be and that I can cope.

“My advice to other people is that you must be aware of your body. If you have any symptoms that you’re worried about then go to your GP immediately.

“It’s also wise to be kind to your body by trying to live a healthier lifestyle.

“The bowel screening test isn’t something to be embarrassed about. I would urge everyone to be more open about talking about bowel cancer and screening. My brother-in-law was diagnosed with bowel cancer the month before me so there was never any doubt in my mind about whether or not to take the test when it arrived on my doorstep.

“Nowadays, if I know someone has just turned 50 then I’ll ask them if they’ve received their screening test through the post. We need to stop feeling silly about talking about such things. The screening test is so important – it could save your life.”

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