Back in December we wrote about Jeremy Hunt’s announcement that six centres in England would start using Bowel Scope Screening (BSS, also known as flexi-scope or flexible sigmoidoscopy) as part of their bowel screening programme in 2013.
This week, 55 year olds in the South of Tyne region (which includes Gateshead, Sunderland and South Tyneside) received the first wave of letters inviting them to be screened.
This is great news. Cancer Research UK has been involved in Bowel Scope Screening from the beginning – we co-funded a 16 year study which showed that it cuts deaths by over 40 per cent, and – unlike the current test – can actually prevent a third of bowel cancers among those screened.
As a result, it has the potential to save thousands of lives from bowel cancer each year.
As soon as the trial results were published in 2010, we said we wanted the Government to add BSS to the existing bowel screening programme, and later that year, they agreed, setting aside £60m to fund it.
Since then we’ve been calling for Bowel Scope Screening to start as soon as possible, so it’s fantastic to see it finally happen.
What does the test do?
The test used in Bowel Scope Screening, flexible sigmoidoscopy , uses a flexible tube with a camera and a light on the end to look into your lower bowel. It can spot both early-stage cancers and pre-cancerous growths known as ‘polyps,’ which can be immediately removed to prevent them developing into cancer.
Recent studies have shown that people find it ‘acceptable’ and ‘reassuring’.
It’s not a new test – it’s been used to diagnose bowel cancer in patients with symptoms for many years. But what is new is using it in this way to screen the population before they even have symptoms. And this could have a huge impact on bowel cancer in this country.
When will it be available?
This is the first of six ‘pilot’ centres which will iron out any potential problems in the system before rolling out BSS to the rest of the country. Over the next few months, another five centres will then start to offer Bowel Scope Screening.
By 2016, everyone in England should be invited to have a test at the age of 55.
What does it mean for me?
Bowel Scope Screening adds to the existing bowel screening programme, which uses the Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) – which looks for blood in your stools. People are invited from age 60 to participate (or age 50 in Scotland).
Under the new plans, if you live in England, you’ll be invited to be screened using BSS when you turn 55. If you decide not to go (and it is your decision), you can change your mind up until you turn 60. At that point you’ll be invited to take part in the existing bowel screening programme.
Whether or not you decide to have BSS, you will still be invited to take part in the existing screening programme at 60, to help spot any cancer that might develop later on. Although it hasn’t been shown to prevent cancer in the same way as BSS, FOBT is still an important way of helping to diagnose bowel cancer at an early stage, when treatment is more likely to be successful. The evidence so far suggests it’s made a big impact already and BSS takes this a step further.
This is an important first step. Now we need to make sure that everyone can benefit from Bowel Scope Screening. At the moment BSS is only being rolled out in England. We want to see Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland develop their own plans for BSS, including making sure they have the right facilities available.
If this test is made available across the UK, thousands of deaths will be prevented, and – even better – potentially thousands of people will be spared from ever having to experience this terrible disease.
- Dan Hughes-Morgan is a policy adviser at Cancer Research UK