LPC Chairman’s Blog: Bowel Cancer – Better Safe than Sorry

Bowel Cancer Awareness Month – Better Safe than Sorry

The NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme has been running since 2006, and it saves lives. The FOB test used has been shown to reduce the risk of dying from bowel cancer by 16%. Early detection is the key to survival, but in some areas only a third of people actually complete the test they’ve been sent. Why should this be?

This is a home test offered to all 60-74 year olds in England. It checks for the presence of blood in a stool sample, or rather three samples. Therein lies the problem – people find it embarrassing or unpleasant to even talk about the test they have just received, never mind actually completing it. However, embarrassment is a small price to pay for peace of mind. A letter is sent within two weeks and most people (98 out of 100) will receive a normal result. What a relief!

But what if the result is ‘unclear’ or ‘abnormal’? ‘Unclear’ doesn’t mean you have cancer and a retest will be requested up to twice more, with the majority ultimately getting a ‘normal’ result. ‘Abnormal’ is what everybody fears, but even this doesn’t mean you have cancer. You’ll be offered a colonoscopy as a follow-up, which is dreaded even more than the test. As with most medical procedures, there can be complications and you will be given all the information you need to make an informed choice about whether or not to go ahead.

A colonoscopy is the most effective way to diagnose bowel cancer. For most people it is quite straightforward:

  • About 5 in 10 will have a normal result (no cancer or polyps)
  • About 4 in 10 will be found to have a polyp (a non-cancerous growth, but which can become cancerous in future if left)
  • About 1 in 10 people will be found to have cancer

What can community pharmacists do to raise awareness of bowel cancer? Supporting Bowel Cancer Awareness Month during April is a great start – as is knowing about the screening programme when talking to patients. The FOB test is seen as complicated and this puts people off doing it, without them really thinking about the benefits of early diagnosis (early detection = 90% cure).

Encouraging participation in the screening programme should therefore be a key action. If only a third of eligible people currently do the test, there is an opportunity to make a difference to the two-thirds who have ignored, refused or ‘don’t fancy’ doing it. Pharmacists can also help to reduce the risk of bowel cancer by encouraging a healthy lifestyle:

  • Fibre – an important part of a healthy diet, which keeps everything moving through the digestive system
  • Fruit and Vegetables – ‘5 A Day’ recommendation
  • Protein – chicken, fish and pulses but avoid processed meats
  • Hydration – taking in fluids throughout the day
  • Keeping active and maintaining a healthy body weight

Understanding the symptoms of bowel cancer is essential and knowing when to signpost is a key skill for pharmacists. Not everybody is lucky enough to have a test…

John Sargeant

Chairman, Derbyshire LPC,

April 2016


For more information: http://www.bowelcanceruk.org.uk


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