Just 10% of patients with bowel cancer are diagnosed through the national bowel cancer screening programme, statistics show.
People diagnosed through the screening programme are more likely to be diagnosed at an early stage of the disease, thereby boosting their chances of survival.
The annual National Bowel Cancer Audit, which compares the diagnosis, treatment and outcomes of over 30,000 bowel cancer patients across England and Wales, reveals 55% of patients were diagnosed following a GP referral.
A further 18% were diagnosed in an emergency presentation (such as in A&E) where outcomes are less favourable, representing a slight improvement from last year’s figure of 20%.
The research also reveals there is large geographical variation for the use of keyhole surgery, ranging from 38% to 76% across England. Patients having surgery to remove their tumour are recommended to have this less invasive approach where possible, which tends to have a shorter recovery time.
There is also considerable variation in the use of potentially curable surgery. A quarter of patients aged 75 and over are not receiving surgery with a view to being cured.
Two thirds (67%) of all bowel cancer patients survive beyond two years, a figure that has remained stable since 2012/13.
Nearly two thirds of patients (63%) diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer received chemotherapy alongside other treatments, such as surgery, however this varies across hospitals from 55% to 75%.
Dr Lisa Wilde, director of research and external affairs at Bowel Cancer UK, said the variations identified in the audit highlight a system defined by a postcode lottery for bowel cancer patients, with where they live affecting whether or not they receive the best available care.
“It is encouraging to see an increase in stage 3 patients receiving adjuvant chemotherapy, but more needs to be done to ensure this is available to all patients who need it regardless of where they live,” she argued.
Wilde said the root cause of many of these variations is “a system stretched to its limits”, adding: “There are simply not enough staff in the NHS to diagnose and treat bowel cancer patients.”