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Ministers bow to pressure to lower bowel cancer screening age to 50

Delight as health ministers finally bow to pressure to lower the bowel cancer screening age to 50

Health ministers finally bow to pressure to lower the bowel cancer screening age to 50 in England in move that will save thousands of lives

  • Under current guidelines, patients aged 60 to 74 are offered a home testing kit
  • But new plans, accepted by officials, will bring down the threshold by a decade
  • Charities have expressed their delight over the move, after years of campaigns
  • They hope that it will detect bowel cancer much earlier in thousands of patients
  • Scotland already offers patients their first home testing kit when they turn 50 
  • Officials in Wales and Northern Ireland are expected to make similar moves 
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BBC newsreader George Alagiah is among those who have called for an earlier screening programme for the disease

Everyone aged over 50 will be screened for bowel cancer in England as ministers today finally bowed to pressure to lower the age.

Under current guidelines, patients aged between 60 and 74 are offered a home testing kit for the killer disease every two years.

But new plans, accepted by both the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England, will bring down the threshold by a decade.  

Charities today expressed their delight over the bold move, following years of campaigning to bring England in line with Scotland.

They hope it will detect bowel cancer earlier in thousands of patients, boosting their chances of survival dramatically. 

Officials in Wales and Northern Ireland are expected to make similar moves, on the back of the UK-wide recommendations, but have yet to confirm.

BBC newsreader George Alagiah and former health secretary Andrew Lansley are among those who have called for earlier screening for the disease.

Mr Alagiah, 62, who is currently receiving treatment for bowel cancer for the second time, previously said it could have been caught sooner if over-50s were screened in England.

Lord Lansley, announcing he was also being treated for the disease in April, urged the Government to cut the age ‘in line with international best practice’.

Bowel cancer strikes 41,000 each year in UK and kills 16,000, making it the second deadliest cancer – behind only lung cancer.

Survival rates are notoriously poor, as fewer than a tenth of patients survive for five years when it is diagnosed late, compared to 90 per cent if spotted early. 

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The UK National Screening Committee recommended a lower age for screening, following its review of all available evidence. 

They say the faecal immunochemical home testing kit (FIT), easier to use than the current faecal occult blood test, should be rolled out in the UK. 

Studies show the FIT, which needs only one stool sample compared to the six needed in the FOB test, is more accurate in detecting potential bowel cancer. 


George Alagiah said in March that he believes his bowel cancer could have been picked up sooner if he lived in Scotland, where earlier screenings are offered.

The BBC newsreader was first diagnosed in 2014 and underwent 17 rounds of chemotherapy and five operations on the cancer, which had spread to his liver and lymph nodes.

After getting the all-clear in 2015, the father-of-two was given the devastating news last December that it had returned. Hours later he went on to present the news that day as normal.

Mr Alagiah, 62, who has been the face of the BBC’s News at Six since 2007, said that while he knows his cancer can no longer be cured, it could have been a different story had he lived in Scotland.

Men and women are offered bowel cancer screening every two years in Scotland from the age of 50. In England, bowel cancer screening often starts at 60, although in recent years one type of test has become available at 55 in some areas. 

The Sri Lankan-born journalist said: ‘Had I been screened, I could have been picked up. Had they had screening at 50, like they do in Scotland… I would have been screened at least three times and possibly four by the time I was 58 and this would have been caught at the stage of a little polyp: snip, snip…

‘We know that if you catch bowel cancer early, survival rates are tremendous. I have thought: why have the Scots got it and we don’t?’

Mr Alagiah has stage 4 bowel cancer, meaning his chance of surviving at least five years is 10 per cent. But the chance of surviving stage 1 bowel cancer for at least five years is almost 100 per cent.

He said the disappointment of the cancer coming back was ‘almost worse than the shock of finding out in the first place’.

Speaking to The Sunday Times, he said: ‘The first time you are just stunned and shocked. But somehow, when you think you have made it well, I might still make it … The disappointment was pretty bad.’

Mr Alagiah was diagnosed with bowel cancer in April 2014 after noticing blood in his stools. He returned to the BBC in November 2015 after being cleared of the disease.

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock and Public Health Minister Steve Brine agreed to the recommendations by the independent body.

FIT is already due to be rolled out in the autumn and will initially be offered to those aged 60 to 74 years old.

It is expected to be gradually rolled out to over-55s, followed by over-50s, but no official timetable has yet been given.

Men and women in England and Wales are currently offered a one-off bowel scope at the age of 55, if it’s available in their area.

The procedure is expected to be maintained until the new home test is rolled out to this age group.

Public health minister Steve Brine said: ‘We are determined to make our cancer survival rates the best in the world.’

He described it as a ‘much more convenient and reliable test’, which gives them a ‘real opportunity’ to detect thousands of patients earlier.

NHS England and Public Health England will now consider how to move towards lowering the age of screening.

Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, revealed the plans will be included in its goal of reshaping cancer care in the next decade.

Professor Anne Mackie, director of screening at PHE, 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.

‘The committee recognises that this change will take time but wants the FIT test to be offered to all aged 60 and over as soon as possible, and options considered for a roll-out plan where screening can be offered at 55 and eventually to all aged 50 – ensuring we have the best bowel screening programme possible.’

Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, welcomed the move, arguing more cancers will be spotted earlier, ‘saving lives’.

She said: ‘We’re delighted that the Government has committed to lowering the age that bowel screening can start from 60 to 50. 

‘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 argued the staffing crisis in the NHS must be dealt with urgently to ensure that a lower screening age is never threatened.

Deborah Alsina MBE, chief executive of Bowel Cancer UK, announced the charity was also delighted to hear the screening age will be lowered.

She said: ‘We want to see every eligible person in the UK have access to the most effective screening methods. 

‘Today’s recommendation to offer FIT from the age of 50 every two years… is a significant step towards achieving this.

‘We have campaigned strongly for the screening age to be lowered to 50, in line with Scotland and the rest of the world, for some time now.’

Ms Alsina repeated calls for ensuring the over-stretched NHS has enough staff and resources to deal with the increase in demand by lowering the screening age.


Bowel, or colorectal, cancer affects the large bowel, which is made up of the colon and rectum.

Such tumours usually develop from pre-cancerous growths, called polyps.

Symptoms include:

  • Bleeding from the bottom
  • Blood in stools
  • A change in bowel habits lasting at least three weeks
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Extreme, unexplained tiredness
  • Abdominal pain

Most cases have no clear cause, however, people are more at risk if they: 

  • Are over 50
  • Have a family history of the condition
  • Have a personal history of polyps in their bowel
  • Suffer from inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease
  • Lead an unhealthy lifestyle  

Treatment usually involves surgery, and chemo- and radiotherapy.

More than nine out of 10 people with stage one bowel cancer survive five years or more after their diagnosis.

This drops significantly if it is diagnosed in later stages. 

According to Bowel Cancer UK figures, more than 41,200 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year in the UK. 

It affects around 40 per 100,000 adults per year in the US, according to the National Cancer Institute.

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