Thousands with a genetic condition offered NHS bowel cancer screening

The NHS is offering routine preventative bowel cancer screening to thousands of people in England with a genetic condition that increases their chance of developing certain cancers. This is a world-first move by the health service to help reduce cases and identify bowel cancers earlier when successful treatment and cure is more likely.

As part of the NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme, people with Lynch syndrome are now invited for bowel surveillance every two years, where they are seen by a specialist team and assessed for a colonoscopy which checks for polyps and signs of bowel cancer. Lynch syndrome is an inherited condition that increases the risk of certain cancers, including bowel, ovarian and pancreatic, but out of 100 people with Lynch syndrome, screening prevents between 40 and 60 people from getting bowel cancer.

Around 10,000 people in England are on the Lynch syndrome register and are being invited to join Lynch surveillance as part of the NHS bowel cancer screening programme, and with many more unknowingly living with the disease, thousands of extra cancers will potentially be diagnosed and treated earlier.

The routine colonoscopies will be offered at local bowel cancer screening centres, close to peoples’ homes making it more convenient for people to get tested.

The health service also has a dedicated genetic testing programme for the condition and now almost all people diagnosed with bowel and endometrial cancer receive the initial test to check for Lynch syndrome – 94% on average between 2021-2023 which is up from 47% in 2019. A diagnosis for Lynch syndrome not only helps guide more personalised cancer treatment but enables their families and relatives to be offered testing too. Around 1,100 bowel cancers are caused by Lynch syndrome each year in England – and it is thought the syndrome increases the lifetime risk of developing bowel cancer up to around 80%.

Steve Russell, national director of screening and vaccinations for the NHS, said: “Our successful bowel cancer screening programme already helps identify thousands of cancers each year, and now thousands more people who have been diagnosed with Lynch syndrome will also be given regular colonoscopies to check for signs of cancer and to detect the disease earlier.

It is estimated that 1 in 400 people in England have Lynch syndrome (equivalent to around 175,000 people), but just 5% are aware they are living with the condition. People with Lynch syndrome are more likely to develop multiple cancers and be diagnosed at a younger age. For example, bowel cancer is most common in those aged over 50, but in someone younger it may be a sign of Lynch syndrome.

The NHS is now able to identify the condition through a simple blood test, which then goes through a regional genomic laboratory hub, is sequenced, and then sent back to the referring clinician. Relatives who receive a diagnosis of Lynch syndrome can be referred to genetic services to discuss regular testing options to help catch any cancers as early as possible, as well as to consider preventive options such as taking aspirin or undergoing risk-reducing surgery.

While the syndrome does not directly cause cancer, the genetic changes can lead to more abnormal cells developing, which then multiply and increase the risk of developing cancers, such as bowel, prostate and endometrial, among others.


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