Patients in Swansea to receive pioneering bowel cancer blood tests

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Tuesday 7th March 2023

Patients in Swansea are set to receive a pioneering blood test as part of a project designed to speed up the process of testing for individuals who have recovered from bowel cancer. 

As part of a pilot scheme, around 200 patients in Swansea will be offered the blood tests, which will act as an alternative to colonoscopies. Funded by the Moondance Cancer Initiative, it is hoped that the tests will enable those who have been in remission to access check-ups and follow-up appointments sooner.

Bowel cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in the UK, with over 42,000 new cases diagnosed each year. People who have recovered from bowel cancer are monitored on an ongoing basis using scans and colonoscopies but waiting times for follow-up appointments have increased in the last two years due to the pandemic.

Professor Dean Harris, a colorectal surgeon at the Singleton Hospital in Swansea, explained that there is currently a substantial backlog due to a temporary pause in testing during the pandemic, which has left thousands waiting for scans and tests. In Swansea Bay alone, Prof Harris said, there are more than 4,000 people who are waiting to have a colonoscopy following successful bowel cancer treatment. For many months, it has only been possible for hospital teams to carry out colonoscopies on patients who have a high risk of bowel cancer who have been referred for urgent tests by their GPs.

Prof Harris is hoping that the blood test can provide a rapid, inexpensive alternative to colonoscopies for patients who are waiting to undergo checks having recovered from bowel cancer. Speeding up the process is crucial, as there is a risk of cancer returning. Regular checks help to ensure that any signs of recurrence are identified and treated as early as possible.

Patients will be selected to take part in the blood test trial in the coming weeks. As well as providing a quick and simple way to monitor patients, the test will also enable medical teams to prioritise those who need further tests based on the outcome of the blood test. If there is a high risk that cancerous cells are present, patients can be moved up the list to access treatment sooner.

If the initiative is successful, it could be rolled out in other parts of Wales and the UK. News of the project has been welcomed by cancer charities and patients who are waiting anxiously for checks and scans. Paul Scanlon, from Cardiff, said that anything that enables cancer patients and those who have recently recovered to access tests faster will make a huge difference. Paul, 53, was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer in spring 2022 after spotting traces of blood in his stools while training for the London Marathon. After undergoing treatment, he will need routine scans every 6 months for the next five years. Many people in Wales and the rest of the UK are in a similar situation. 

Cancer charities have branded the development a step in the right direction, but it could be many months, even years before patients are able to attend routine scans and checks as frequently as they need to, such is the extent of the backlog. 

Bowel cancer, also known as colon cancer, is the third most common cancer in men and women in the UK. It is most common among older people. Rates are highest in over 85s. According to Cancer Research UK, around 54% of cases of bowel cancer in the UK are preventable. The most effective ways to lower risks include avoiding processed meat, increasing fibre intake, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy body weight and avoiding smoking and drinking excessively. 

Symptoms of bowel cancer include changes in bowel habits, blood in the stools, stomach pain and unexplained weight loss.