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Embarrassment at having to provide a stool sample is one of the reasons why more than 40% of older people are not getting tested for bowel cancer.

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, but the second leading cause of cancer deaths, with around 13,000 people dying from it every year. More than 41,200 people are diagnosed in the UK every year. Almost 95% of new cases are diagnosed in people over 50 and almost 60% in people aged 70 or over, so it is vital that older people are regularly screened for the condition.

Bowel cancer is treatable and curable, but the prospects for successful treatment are much better if it is diagnosed early. Now Public Health England (PHE) is calling on all men and women over 60 to get screened for bowel cancer. It says the latest figures, which show more than 40% not getting tested, are putting thousands of people unnecessarily at risk of dying from the disease.

According to PHE, one of the main reasons people don’t get tested is embarrassment at having to send in a stool sample, and this is especially the case among older men. Now it wants wives, partners and daughters to encourage the older men in their families (as well as the women) to overcome any embarrassment and ensure they are tested.

The latest figures for “Screening Programmes in England 2016-17” show a very small (3%) increase in the uptake for screening for bowel cancer, but at 59% it remains significantly lower than the screening rates for other types of cancer. Bowel cancer screening is offered to all men and women aged 60 to 74, who are sent a home test kit. It asks them to provide a stool sample and send it in for testing.

More than 3,000 bowel cancers were diagnosed through screening in 2016 to 2017. In more than 90% of these cases, cancers were found at an early stage, where treatment is more likely to be successful. Thousands more lives could be saved if more people, particularly men, returned stool samples to be tested.

Improvements are being made to make screening easier and next year a new home test, known as the ‘FIT’ test, will be introduced. It requires just one sample rather than the current three, and will detect bowel cancer more accurately.

Professor Anne Mackie, PHE’s director of screening, said: “It’s of great concern that four out of every 10 over-60-year-olds are not taking up the offer of getting tested for bowel cancer. Men in particular are less likely to send in a sample, so we’re asking their partners, children and grandchildren to encourage them to do so.

“Bowel cancer causes 13,000 deaths every year, which is why screening is so important. Embarrassment over giving a stool sample may be causing thousands of preventable deaths. But with a new home test kit next year making it much easier to get screened, we are hoping to see numbers increase.”

Judith Brodie, from the charity Beating Bowel Cancer, added: “People may feel uncomfortable completing their home screening tests, but they can be crucial in the early diagnosis of bowel cancer – which is very treatable if caught early. We strongly encourage the use of these bowel screening tests – they can be life-saving.”

You can find out more, including about the symptoms of bowel cancer, by clicking here to visit the Beating Bowel Cancer website.

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