Bring down the age of colorectal cancer screening in the UK

Colorectal cancer is a big killer, but it doesn’t have to be because when it is detected early it’s one of the most treatable cancers. So it’s great that the NHS now offers colorectal cancer screening, and we should be doing all we can to encourage our friends and relatives to take part in this programme, because it will save lives and improve outcomes.

Two types of screening are offered. Firstly, there’s a one-off colonoscopy at 55, and then faecal occult blood tests (a testing kit which investigates if there’s blood in your stools) every two years from 60-74.

But this might just be too little, too late for many people. It’s true that colorectal cancer is largely a cancer of aging and tends to affect older people – the peak rate to be diagnosed is 85 to 89 years. But colorectal cancer does affect younger people – around 3 in 10 Europeans are under 55 at diagnosis. Personally, I’d have been long dead if I’d waited to be screened at 55.

Research is now beginning to provide evidence that the age for screening programmes needs to be reconsidered. For example, researchers analyzed the results of 6,027 colonoscopies and discovered a 400% increase in uncontrolled growth of defective tissues in people aged 45 to 49, compared to those aged 40 to 44. The number of polyps and adenomas detected in colonoscopies increased by 95% in the 45-49 age group when compared to the 40-44 age group.

The researchers say that the critical age appears to be 45 years and recommend that screening begins then. This is no small beer, because 215,000 Europeans die from colorectal cancer each year, with almost a third being under the age of 55.

We need to lobby to lower the age of screening in the UK, and to review the way we publicise and encourage screening to increase the proportion of people who take up the screening tests when offered.

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