Bowel cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in Ireland. More than 50 per cent of patients in Ireland are diagnosed with Stage 3 or 4 bowel cancer, which is the most advanced stage. Bowel cancer screening aims to detect bowel cancer at an early stage (in people with no symptoms), when treatment is more likely to be effective. If caught early enough, the chances of a successful outcome are greatly increased. Regular screening has been shown to reduce the risk of dying from bowel cancer by 16 per cent and yet Ireland continues to have no bowel screening programme in place.
People need not be embarrassed about bowel cancer screening. They are not required to take a stool sample to their doctor nor do they have to undergo a physical examination. They are instead sent a simple FOBT (faecal occult blood test) kit in the post along with step-by-step instructions for completing the test in the privacy of their own home. This involves collecting a small sample from two separate bowel motions and, using a specially designed prepaid envelope, returning the kit to the laboratory for analysis. The test does not diagnose bowel cancer but gives an indication as to whether further investigations are required.
The European Commission has advised that all countries should give consideration to the introduction of faecal occult blood screening for colorectal cancer in men and women between the ages of 50 and 74. Almost 60% of Irish cases of colorectal cancer occur in this age group. International randomised controlled trials have clearly demonstrated that faecal occult blood testing reduces mortality for colorectal cancer. The NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme has already been rolled out in the UK following a successful pilot scheme and it’s due to be extended to Northern Ireland next year.
Ireland is still dragging it’s feet! The HSE states that “a number of issues need to be addressed prior to this service being implemented”. In January 2007, it funded a 3-year study to ascertain “the optimal tools and framework to be used in an Irish screening service“. In other words, it’s kicking for touch as our poorly resourced public health service cannot currently cope with the numbers of symptomatic patients presenting for investigation. The waiting time for a colonoscopy appointment in the public system, can be six months or more – a deadly wait for some.
Bowel cancer is preventable, treatable and beatable. The prognosis for patients with colorectal cancer is closely related to the stage of the disease at the time of diagnosis. A national bowel screening programme in Ireland would lead to fewer patients presenting with advanced bowel cancer. The HSE chooses to ignore this fact and continues to prioritise health expenditure over people’s lives. In recent days, Mary Harney has been warning of severe cutbacks in healthcare spending. News has begun to filter through that the HSE plans to save €500 million on healthcare spending in 2009. The prognosis for Irish healthcare, is not looking good.
UPDATE: Just spotted this article about an innovative bowel cancer screening programme taking place at Tallaght Hospital in Dublin. The programme began about four months ago and is attempting to screen 10,000 people aged 50-74 in the Tallaght area, over a period of 18 months. Tallaght hospital is the first in Ireland to offer this service. Let’s hope it’s not the last.
FURTHER UPDATE: Health cutbacks of almost €1 billion forecast.
JUST PUBLISHED: The HSE’s National Service Plan for 2009.