Around 150,000 life-saving bowel cancer screening test kits have been issued and over 100 cancers have been detected in Northern Ireland since the launch of the Bowel Cancer Screening Programme in April 2010.
Bowel cancer is the second most common cancer in Northern Ireland and claims the lives of 400 local people each year*, but when detected at a very early stage there is a 90% successful treatment rate.
All men and women aged 60-71 years are currently invited for screening every two years and the life-saving Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) kit is sent out to the address patients have registered with their GP.
The screening kit is used to detect traces of blood in the bowel motion, which if found can lead to further tests. Most people who are tested will have no blood in their bowel motions and will be invited to repeat the screening test two years later. Only 10 people in every 500 who complete the test kit will have traces of blood in their bowel motion and only one of these will have bowel cancer.
Dr Tracy Owen, Consultant in Public Health Medicine with the PHA, said: “Bowel cancer screening will save approximately 60 lives here each year. The screening programme uses a home test kit and is aimed at people who do not have any symptoms.
“The test is very simple to do and can be completed within the privacy of your own home. It is hoped that as the test is carried out at home, more people will respond, particularly men, who often find health issues difficult to talk about.
“Each year in Northern Ireland 1,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer* and there are over 400 deaths but the good news is that the earlier the cancer is detected the chances of successful treatment improve significantly.”
Former Ulster and Ireland rugby star Harry Steele has praised the Bowel Cancer Screening Programme, led by the Public Health Agency, for saving his life.
The 63 year old granddad had no symptoms and did not think twice about completing the test when it dropped through his letterbox. He was not worried when a letter came back asking him to repeat it as traces of blood had been found in his original test.
“I was totally shocked as I felt great and certainly didn’t have any signs of bowel cancer,” explained the retired Cookstown man.
“I was sent for a colonoscopy and the doctor, who I knew from my rugby and school days, stopped mid conversation and told me he could see a tumour. It was just a few weeks before Christmas and I thought that the holidays would delay my treatment. But this was definitely not the case.”
Within a few weeks Harry had the results of two scans which revealed the cancer had probably not spread. And by the end of January the cancer had been removed through surgery.
“I felt nearly normal within a week of the operation and as a result of the cancer being detected early I didn’t need a colostomy bag or any further treatment which was a huge relief,” added the father of three.
“The test definitely saved my life as I had no symptoms at all so I would not have gone to my doctor for a long while probably. The longer the cancer is there the more chance there is of it spreading and the outcome not being so good.”
Harry would encourage everyone eligible to complete the test.
“It is great that we have this screening so anyone who is eligible should use it. It is such a simple test to do and it can be done in the privacy of your own home.
“I’m lucky as thanks to the test my cancer was discovered early and now I’m back to enjoying my normal life playing with my three grandchildren, travelling, gardening and golfing.”
Bowel cancer can occur at any age and symptoms can include:
- bleeding from your bottom, or blood in your bowel motion;
- a change in bowel habit lasting three weeks or more, especially if it becomes looser;
- unexplained weight loss;
- pain or swelling in your abdomen;
- extreme tiredness for no obvious reason.
Not everyone with these symptoms will have cancer, but if you are concerned that you have one or more of these symptoms, you should seek advice from your doctor at an early stage.
Dr Owen added: “Only around 50% of people who receive the potentially life-saving screening kit are completing it. This means that many people are missing an opportunity to detect cancer early at a stage before symptoms even appear.”
“This is hugely significant because when detected at a very early stage, treatment for bowel cancer can be 90% successful. I strongly encourage everyone who is eligible, to participate in the screening programme. It is therefore also important that your GP has your most up-to-date address and correct date of birth or you may miss the chance to take part in the programme.
Anyone who has received the test kit and has questions about how to use it please call the Freephone Helpline number 0800 015 2514.
For further information on the screening programme and what it involves, visit www.cancerscreening.hscni.net
Contact the Public Health Agency on 028 90553663
Notes to the editor
1. * Source: Cancer Registry.