Early detection of any disease is a key factor. Screening and surveillance for cancers of the digestive tract is important, especially in people at higher risk than average and is rewarding, because early detection gives a good chance of cure.
Bowel (Colon) Cancer Screening
Colon cancer is amongst the most common of cancers, with around 30,000 patients diagnosed each year in the UK. Every person is invited to join a screening programme run by the NHS when they are 60. Screening then occurs every 2 years until age 75 and later on request. A further test (flexible sigmoidoscopy or “bowel scope” is gradually being offered for over 55s.
A sample of faeces is collected and tested for blood. A positive result can indicate that polyps (small growths) are present in the bowel which are at risk of turning cancerous, or have begun to do so.
Where the initial test is positive, a colonoscopy will normally follow. A thin, flexible tube with a camera is used to see inside your large bowel, unwanted polyps can also be removed during the procedure. Colonoscopy involves taking a laxative preparation at home the day before the procedure and will usually involve a sedative during the procedure, to make this as comfortable as possible.
A flexible sigmoidoscopy (flexisig) focuses on the lower part of the colon, is less invasive and doesn’t need the same bowel clearout preparation, or involve sedation.
Not everyone chooses sedation for colonoscopy, although this and every way of making you comfortable will be available. Whilst results matter, so does a testing approach you feel able to repeat at intervals.
Oesophageal Cancer Screening
There is no national screening programme for oesophageal cancer in the UK. The only group recommended for screening by the British Society of Gastroenterology are patients with Barretts oesophagus, who have a slight increased risk of developing premalignant change, which can be detected and treated.
Wider Digestive Tract Screening
Stomach cancer is relatively rare in the UK; there is no definitive screening test for stomach cancer.
A simple breath test for a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori can be valuable. This is a cause of ulcers, is linked to increased risk of stomach cancer and can usually be cleared up with suitable treatment.
There is no established screening test for pancreatic cancer. Patients with cirrhosis of the liver are screened for the development of liver cancer by regular blood tests and an abdominal ultrasound.