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THOUSANDS are at risk of dying from bowel cancer as the number of people being diagnosed has fallen since the first Covid lockdown.
More than 3,500 fewer patients than expected were diagnosed with the disease between April and October 2020, new research shows.
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Thousands are at risk of dying from bowel cancer as the number of people being diagnosed has fallen since the first Covid lockdown, stats showCredit: Getty – Contributor
The study, by the University of Oxford, suggests that many people whose cancer diagnosis has yet to be made may die unnecessarily.
Fewer than one in ten people survive bowel cancer if it’s picked up at stage 4, but detected quickly, more than nine in ten patients will live five years or longer.
Early diagnosis is key, which is why The Sun launched the No Time 2 Lose campaign – to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of the disease, to empower everyone to check themselves.
But the new research shows that the number of GP referrals for bowel cancer has fallen sharply – leaving thousands in the dark.
Compared with an average month in 2019, during the peak of the first Covid wave in April 2020, the monthly number of referrals by GPs to hospital clinics for investigation of possible bowel cancer fell by 63 per cent from 36,274 to 13,440.
It also found that the number of colonoscopies performed fell by 92 per cent from 46,441 to 3,484.
The monthly number of people with confirmed bowel cancer referred for treatment fell by 22 per cent from 2,781 to 2,158, the study showed.
The research published in The Lancet Gastroenterology and Hepatology further found that the number of operations performed fell by 31 per cent from 2,003 to 1,378.
Lead author, Professor Eva Morris, from the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford, said: “These results reflect serious disruption in the normal identification and treatment of patients with bowel cancer.
“Early diagnosis is key to obtaining the best survival for bowel cancer so these delays in diagnosis are likely to have severe consequences on survival rates from the disease.”
Early diagnosis is key to obtaining the best survival for bowel cancer
Professor Eva Morris
More than 90 per cent of patients diagnosed with bowel cancer at stage one of the disease survive for at least five years, compared with only 10 per cent of patients diagnosed at stage four.
The research was carried out by a team of clinicians and academic researchers from across the UK, including from the University of Leeds and the University of Newcastle.
They assessed the patterns of referral for bowel cancer investigation, diagnosis and treatment within the English NHS from January 1, 2019, to October 31, 2020.
Professor Sir Mike Richards, a trustee of Cancer Research UK, said: “Far fewer patients with symptoms suggestive of bowel cancer were referred to hospital during the first wave of the pandemic.
“This may have been linked to fear about catching the virus and to the Government’s call to ‘stay at home’ and ‘protect the NHS’.
“Diagnoses and treatments were therefore delayed, with a likely adverse impact on cancer survival.”
The study also suggests the first lockdown had a short-term impact on the numbers of people being treated.
What are the 5 red flag bowel cancer signs?
BOWEL cancer is the fourth most common form of the disease in the UK – after breast, prostate and lung.
It’s also UK’s second deadliest cancer – claiming 16,000 lives a year.
The Sun previously launched the No Time 2 Lose campaign to urge people to talk about their insides and their number twos, in a bid to beat bowel cancer.
Bowel cancer is where the disease starts in the large intestines.
It’s also referred to as colon or colorectal cancer, because it can also affect the colon and rectum.
Most bowel cancers develop from pre-cancerous growths, called polyps.
There are two ways to ensure early diagnosis – screening and awareness.
Being aware of the signs and symptoms of bowel cancer, spotting any changes and checking with your GP can prove a life-saver.
If you notice any of the signs, don’t be embarrassed and don’t ignore them. Doctors are used to seeing lots of patients with bowel problems.
The five red-flag symptoms of bowel cancer include:
- Bleeding from the back passage, or blood in your poo
- A change in your normal toilet habits – going more frequently for example
- Pain or a lump in your tummy
- Extreme tiredness
- Losing weight
Tumours in the bowel typically bleed, which can cause a shortage of red blood cells, known as anaemia. It can cause tiredness and sometimes breathlessness.
In some cases bowel cancer can block the bowel, this is known as a bowel obstruction.
Other signs can include:
- Gripping pains in the abdomen
- Feeling bloated
- Constipation and being unable to pass wind
- Being sick
- Feeling like you need to strain – like doing a number two – but after you’ve been to the loo
While these are all signs to watch out for, experts warn the most serious is noticing blood in your stools.
But, they warn it can prove tricky for doctors to diagnose the disease, because in most cases these symptoms will be a sign of a less serious disease.
But experts say the NHS managed to rapidly adapt services to deliver care safely.
They say treatment rates had only just returned to normal by October and, with the pressure the NHS is currently under as a result of a new surge in Covid-19 cases, it may be likely that diagnostic and treatment rates have fallen again.
The researchers are continuing to monitor these figures to inform decisions about treatment and help ensure that the issue of undetected and untreated bowel cancer in England is addressed.
Brian Nicholson, a GP involved in the study, said: “This study shows that during the pandemic the NHS has changed pathways to create capacity to ensure they can still treat patients with bowel cancer rapidly.
“Hospital services and GPs have taken care to develop safer ways of working to reduce the risk of infection.
“If people have symptoms like altered bowel habit or blood in their poo that may suggest bowel cancer, they must talk to their GPs as soon as possible as early diagnosis saves lives.
“We need to get this message out there.”
BOWEL CANCER BY NUMBERS
2 – bowel cancer is the second biggest cancer killer
4 – it’s the fourth most common form of cancer
42,000 – people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year
1,300 – people will lose their lives this month to the disease
15,903 – lives will be lost this year to bowel cancer
44 – people die every day
30 – that’s one bowel cancer patient every 30 minutes
15 – every 15 minutes someone is told they have bowel cancer
97 – 97 per cent of people diagnosed in the earliest stages will survive for five years or more
7 – only seven per cent survive when diangnosed at the latest stage
60 – 83 per cent of people who get bowel cancer are over the age of 60
50 – it’s more common over the age of 50 but ANYONE can get bowel cancer, you’re never too young
2,500 – the number of under 50s diagnosed each year
268,000 – people living with bowel cancer in the UK