Cancer test kit saved my life

John Barrett is about to start chemotherapy
John Barrett is about to start chemotherapy
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FORMER city MP John Barrett has revealed he is battling bowel cancer, but says a test kit sent through the post by the NHS probably saved his life.

The diagnosis came as a complete shock for the former Liberal Democrat frontbencher.

He said he had felt fine and was totally unaware of any problem until he was called to hospital after the home testing kit gave a positive result.

Now he has had surgery, is about to start chemotherapy and is keen to urge everyone to take advantage of the test kits distributed to everyone aged between 50 and 74 in the Lothians as party of a national screening drive.

Mr Barrett, who was MP for Edinburgh West for nine years until last year’s general election, said: “My mother died age 60 from cancer and had it not been for this mass screening, the same could have happened to me.

“Everyone over 50 gets that envelope and it can save a life – I think it saved mine.”

He sent in his sample in October, was asked to provide a second and then doctors called him in for an examination.

Only a small proportion of positive readings lead to cancer, so even when he went to the Western General Mr Barrett expected the all-clear.

He said: “I was feeling fine, I wasn’t aware of any problem at all. Then they said ‘I’m sorry, Mr Barrett, but you have a cancerous tumour in your colon. We’ll have to have you back in for surgery’.

“Had the screening not picked it up. I would be sailing along in blissful ignorance while the tumour was growing.

“So although it’s not a pleasant experience and it was major surgery and now I’m about to start chemotherapy, the alternative would have been five years from now feeling pains in my tummy and the news could have been much worse.”

He said he believed he was “one of the lucky ones”.

The kits, which ask people to provide three samples, are sent every two years to people over 50, but the uptake is only around 50 per cent and as low as 30 per cent in poorer areas.

Mr Barrett said: “It’s absolutely vital people respond to the mass screening because it can save their lives.

“It only takes five minutes but it can be the difference between leaving a cancerous tumour undetected for possibly years or nipping the problem in the bud.

“Screenings for some diseases do not have that big a success rate, but this test for bowel cancer has a really high percentage rate of catching people early.

“You sometimes think about not doing it because you realise it could be something quite serious.”

Dr Dermot Gorman, public health consultant for NHS Lothian, said symptoms were not obvious until it was at an advanced stage.

He said: “The screening programme is saving lives by helping us detect cancers at an earlier stage when treatment is likely to be more successful.”


Initial symptoms of bowel cancer include:

* blood in your stools (faeces) or bleeding from your rectum

* a change to your normal bowel habits that persists for more than six weeks, such as diarrhoea, constipation or passing stools more frequently than usual

* abdominal pain

* unexplained weight loss.

Sometimes bowel cancer can cause bleeding inside the bowel, eventually leading to anaemia. Symptoms of anaemia include fatigue or breathlessness.

In some cases, bowel cancer can cause an obstruction in the bowel. Symptoms include a feeling of bloating, usually around the belly button; abdominal pain; constipation; vomiting.

People are advised to see their GP if they have any of these symptoms.