Cancer Research UK has reported that bowel cancer is being detected earlier since the introduction of a screening programme in England. Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in the UK with 38,000 people diagnosed annually, making these findings significant.

Introduced in 2006 for people in their 60s, the NHS bowel cancer screening programme aims to detect tumours in early stages by testing for traces of blood in stool samples. Having proved successful, the service was extended to people up to the age of 75 in 2010. Testing kits are sent in the post to eligible people who then collect a small stool sample and return the kit to a laboratory for testing.

The detection rate increased by more than 12% in the scheme's first two years. In 2006 the rate was 143.5 per 100,000 people aged between 60 and 69, but this jumped to 161.5 per 100,000 people in 2008. Catherine Thomson, Head of Statistics at Cancer Research UK commented: "These figures are evidence that the bowel cancer screening programme is helping to find cases of bowel cancer sooner. Without the screening programme it's likely that many of these cancers would not have been found for another few years, by which time they would be harder to treat."

It is vital that cases are detected as soon as possible since survival rates drop dramatically as the disease progresses. The five-year survival rate for early stage bowel cancer is 90% but falls to just 5% for advanced tumours.

The importance of early detection by participating in this scheme was highlighted by Mark Flannagan, Chief Executive of Beating Bowel Cancer. He said: "When patients are diagnosed through screening it is often at an earlier stage before symptoms appear and when treatment can lead to cure. Participation in screening is currently just over 50%, but if everyone took part when offered the test, even more lives could be saved through early diagnosis."

The success of the screening programme has been recognised by the Department of Health, which recently announced that it is investing £60 million over the next four years to a bowel cancer screening technique called flexible sigmoidoscopy, which detects early signs of cancer for people aged around 55.

We hope that participation in the screening programme increases and that the eligibility is widened so far as possible as this will ultimately save more lives.