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Bowel cancer: Sharp rise in young people

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Bowel cancer incidence increased sharply Bowel cancer incidence increased from 0.8 to 2.3 cases per 100,000 people

More young people under 50 are being diagnosed with bowel cancer, studies of the condition have found.

In a study in the journal Gut, researchers analysed trends in 20 European countries, including the UK, Germany, Sweden and France. They found a sharp rise in incidences of bowel cancer between 1990 and 2016 in most countries, with the most significant increase among people in their 20s.

For people in their 20s, bowel cancer incidence increased from 0.8 to 2.3 cases per 100,000 people over 26 years - with the sharpest rise in rates, of 7.9% per year, occurring between 2004 and 2016.

‘This research is crucial in confirming that the number of people under 50 with bowel cancer is on the rise’ said Deborah Alsina MBE, Chief Executive of Bowel Cancer UK.

‘The time has passed where it is in any way acceptable to tell someone under 50, who presents with symptoms, that they are too young for bowel cancer. Two years ago we published, in partnership with the Universities of Exeter and Durham, a risk assessment tool to support GPs in deciding who to refer for diagnostic testing. Yet the NHS has so far failed to implement this, or to clarify the best first-line test for younger patients with symptoms. This must be remedied.’

In most of Europe, bowel cancer screening programmes start at the age of 50 because cases of the disease are much higher among this older age group. As a result, countries with established programmes, like the UK, have seen bowel cancer rates in the over-50s fall.

Although total numbers of cases in young people remain low, the studies highlighted a sharp rise in rates in 20 to 29-year-olds. The researchers are not clear why this is happening, but some think that obesity and poor diet could be factors.

“This research also highlights that incidence of bowel cancer has significantly decreased in the 50-74 age groups in some countries. This is most likely due to bowel cancer screening, but whilst progress has been made in the UK, it is not as significant. This highlights the need for implementation of an optimal screening programme in the UK. This includes the full roll-out of the new, simpler to use bowel cancer screening test (known as the Faecal Immunochemical Test) in all four nations,’ added Ms Alsina.

‘We must have a clear plan for improving the sensitivity of the test so that fewer cancers are missed and more pre-cancerous growths are identified, which will reduce incidence of the disease. It is also imperative that we have a clear time-bound plan for reducing the screening age in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to 50 in line with Scotland and international best practice.

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