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Women face delays in bowel cancer diagnosis

WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Sheena Meredith

3rd November 2017 – Women in England are more likely to be diagnosed with bowel cancer at a later stage than men, putting them at a higher risk of dying from the disease, say researchers.

A third of bowel, or colon, cancers in England are diagnosed as an emergency.

However, details of a study presented at a cancer conference show that 34% of women with bowel cancer were diagnosed after an emergency hospital visit compared to only 30% of men.

This increased likelihood of delay comes despite women having more 'red flag' symptoms of the disease than men, and seeing their doctor more often because of their symptoms in the months leading up to diagnosis.

Case reviews

Researchers from University College London, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and the University of Exeter analysed data from 5,745 cases of bowel cancer in England between 2005 and 2010.

They found that in both men and women, those diagnosed as an emergency had visited their GP to discuss symptoms in roughly equal proportions to those diagnosed by non-emergency routes in the 2 to 10 previous years before their diagnosis.

However, this changed in the year before being diagnosed when consultation rates increased markedly and women were more likely than men to talk to their GP about relevant symptoms such as anaemia, blood in their poo, and a change in bowel habits.

Among women diagnosed as an emergency, 20% had these red flag symptoms compared with 15% among men.

Women were more likely than men to have been wrongly diagnosed with a less serious condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), nd this made it more likely that their cancer would be diagnosed at an emergency visit.

Survival rates

There were around 41,300 new cases of bowel cancer in the UK in 2014. It is the 3rd most common type of cancer for women, with 18,400 diagnoses recorded that year.

Bowel cancer survival rates are higher in men than in women.

The latest study, funded by Cancer Research UK and the British Medical Association, is being presented at the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) Cancer Conference in Liverpool.

The findings should be treated with caution as they have yet to be scrutinised by experts in the same field before being published in a journal – a process known as 'peer review'.

Diagnosis difficulties

Dr Richard Roope, Cancer Research UK’s GP expert, says in a statement: "Bowel cancer can be difficult to diagnose because it can share symptoms with diseases other than cancer.

"The most common symptom recorded for women in the study before they were diagnosed with cancer was stomach pain, which is usually associated with other women's health conditions. This could explain why some men were diagnosed with colon cancer earlier, as stomach pains don't have as many alternative explanations for men as they do for women. Sometimes diagnosing cancer is a process of elimination, so other conditions need to be eliminated first which means a longer wait for a cancer diagnosis.

"A lot has changed since the data used in this study was collected. GPs have been given new guidance to recognise and refer suspected cancers, and work continues to raise public awareness of cancer symptoms. Emergency diagnoses remain an issue though and efforts to improve this must continue."

Reviewed on November 03, 2017

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