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Bowel cancer screening in England to start decade earlier at the age of 50

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Bowel cancer screening in England is set to start at an earlier age of 50 to improve early detection, according to Public Health England.

The national agency announced the new plan after evidence showed that screening people at a younger age would allow more bowel cancers to be picked up at an earlier stage.

“This will mean more cancers can be spotted earlier, saving lives.

Sara Hiom

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, with 42,000 people diagnosed every year. More than 16,000 people die from the cancer annually in the UK.

Currently, men and women in England are first invited for screening at the age of 60 to 74 and are sent a home testing kit every two years. From the autumn, a new improved test, called a faecal immunochemical home test kit or FIT, is being given to everyone age 60 and over.

In the future, the plan is for everyone in England from the age of 50 to receive the new kit. The change will bring England into line with Scotland, where screening is already first offered at 50.

The government said that extending the programme to those age 50 in England would “not delay” the planned introduction of FIT, which it stated was a “priority”.

Meanwhile, one-off testing offered to men and women at 55 via flexible sigmoidoscopy will continue where it is currently in place until FIT is offered to the same age group, the government said.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock agreed to the age change earlier this month. NHS England and Public Health England are currently deciding how the plan will be rolled out.

Steve Brine, public health minister, said: “With the roll out of FIT as a new bowel screening test from the autumn – a much more convenient and reliable test – we have a real opportunity to reshape our bowel screening programme and potentially detect the stages of bowel cancer much earlier.

“We are now considering opportunities and taking expert advice on how a sustainable, optimal bowel cancer screening programme starting at age 50 can work in the future,” he said.

“Starting screening 10 years earlier at 50 will help spot more abnormalities at an early stage”

Anne Mackie

Professor Anne Mackie, director of screening at Public Health England, said: “The risk of bowel cancer rises steeply from around age 50-54 and rates are significantly higher among males than females.

“Starting screening 10 years earlier at 50 will help spot more abnormalities at an early stage that could develop into bowel cancer if not detected,” she added.

Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, welcomed the move.

She said: “When bowel cancer is diagnosed at an early stage, nine in 10 people survive but when it is detected in the late stages, survival falls to one in 10.”

However, Ms Hiom warned that the biggest challenge would be finding sufficient staff to carry out diagnostic tests. This included colonoscopies, a necessity for those needing extended screenings, she noted.

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