Why this cancer test really is a breakthrough
Not because I don’t want to see breakthroughs happen frequently – after all, that’s what our scientists and doctors strive for - but because so often early and encouraging results are hyped up to sound definitive. This raises undue hope and expectation amongst patients and their families, which are so often dashed later.
Flexi-Scope (sigmoidoscopy) is the exception that proves the rule. The 16 year trial that has given us remarkable results showing that thousands of lives can be saved by a simple procedure is not just promising. It is truly a breakthrough in bowel cancer prevention. And it is one of the most exciting developments in cancer research that we have seen for many years.
That is why I warmly welcome the government’s decision to make this test available as part of the existing National Health Service’s bowel cancer screening programme. I urge the Department of Health to roll it out throughout the country as soon as possible and I hope very much that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will very quickly follow suit.
There is a good reason for avoiding any kind of delay. Every year, more than 30,000 British men and women are diagnosed with bowel cancer and more than half of them (16,000) will die from the disease, making it the second biggest cancer killer in the UK.
With every week that passes without access to this test, scores of lives are being put at risk. With this test, 10,000 people every year will avoid bowel cancer altogether and deaths from it will drop by almost half among those who attend (43 per cent).
It is extremely rare to see the results of a clinical trial – which Cancer Research UK funded along with the Medical Research Council and National Institute for Health Research - which are quite as compelling as this one and which has quite the huge impact in terms of the potential for improving cancer outcomes.
We have a tremendous opportunity now to use this procedure to push bowel cancer cases back down the league of cancer cases in the UK. That’s why I don’t hesitate to call Flexi-Scope a genuine breakthrough.
So what is it and who should have it? Flexi-Scope is a simple procedure called sigmoidoscopy. A tiny camera mounted on a thin, flexible tube is inserted about a third of the way into the bowel and can detect polyps or symptomless growths in the colon. The camera’s findings are displayed on a screen and any polyps found can be snipped off in a safe and painless procedure before they get a chance to develop into bowel cancer. And as we all acknowledge: prevention is so much better than cure.
Flexi-Scope takes five minutes, is a one off test and experts recommend it should be given to men and women between the ages of 55 and 64. I won’t hesitate to take up my invitation when I reach that age.
Flexi-Scope will supplement rather than replace the existing bowel screening programme which is already saving lives. The existing programme is a do-it-yourself test posted to people, between the ages of 60 and 70, and is designed to detect invisible traces of blood in stool samples. If blood is detected then follow-up usually involves a colonoscopy.
Because, the new test will prevent polyps turning in to cancers, adding Flexi-Scope to the bowel screening programme will spare tens of thousands of families the anxiety and suffering associated with a cancer diagnosis. And, vitally, it will save the National Health Service money that would otherwise be spent on giving bowel cancer patients surgery and expensive follow-up treatment.
The trial - which involved 170,000 people who were followed up for 11 years -reported that most people thought the whole examination procedure was a positive experience. They were fascinated by what they could see on the screen and the long-term follow-up meant they felt reassured about their future health. So will the public turn up for a test like this? We are very hopeful that they will. It could save their lives.
By Harpal Kumar, Chief Executive, Cancer Research UK, Telegraph UK, October 3, 2010.