How community pharmacists help with the early detection of bowel cancer

By Howard Duff, RPS Director for England

The UK’s cancer survival rates lag behind those of Europe.  One reason for this is that patients often present when their cancer is quite advanced, meaning their treatment options are more limited and their lives shortened as a result.  Detecting cancer earlier is essential to the one in three of us who will develop the disease during our lifetime.

Many individuals in the early stages of cancer self-medicate because they do not recognise their symptoms as important.

We think that pharmacists can do much more to help patients recognise the importance of early detection and encourage them to take action when they have symptoms that may be of concern. Over 80% of pharmacies now have private areas where you can have a chat without being overheard, meaning more and more people feel they can seek advice and questions about their health from their pharmacist. 

The Society is building firm evidence of the profession’s success in early detection through our clinical audits on bowel and lung cancer which both demonstrate a strong correlation between the number of symptoms reported by patients and referral to their GP by the pharmacist.ns about their health from their pharmacist.

We’ve got more information for professionals  and patients  about early detection if you’d like to know more.

In the meantime, April is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month.  Bowel cancer is one of the most treatable cancers if diagnosed early.   In fact, over 90% of patients could be cured if diagnosed at its earliest stage but it continues to be the UK’s second biggest cancer killer.  Alison was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer almost two years ago.  Her story is a powerful reason for us all to talk to our patients about cancer.  You can read her story below and more on her own blog.


Alison’s Blog

By Alison, volunteer for national charity Beating Bowel Cancer

I went to the loo this morning and there it was again….. blood, on the paper and some on my poo, it’s been happening on and off for a few weeks now. I’m a bit scared, I had piles a couple of years ago and eventually got some of that ‘pile cream’ at the chemist, it sorted it out fine. This time it’s a bit different, it doesn’t itch like last time, so I suppose that’s better and I can feel something ‘in my bottom’ when I poo, It feels like I haven’t quite finished, like a bit’s got stuck, it’s so embarrassing. Sometimes I go several times a day, I never used to, me, I was always a once a day person and it’s looser and there’s a sort of slimy mucus, yuk! Oh and wind! Don’t get me talking about wind, I suppose it’s an age thing, but it’s getting beyond a joke, I had to find an empty aisle in the supermarket the other day to let rip, it just builds up and up and however much I let it out my tummy never seems to get rid of it, I’ve lost a bit of weight lately but I have to wear jogging pants, they’re the only ones that are comfortable. Now, back to this blood, think I’ll go back to the chemist for some of that cream, I’d talk to that pharmacist chap, but it’s a bit embarrassing, might just hover for a bit and see if I can catch his eye if it’s quiet, but never mind if I don’t I’m sure the cream will sort me out.

This was me three or more years ago, several minor symptoms, nothing major, nothing I felt big enough to trouble the GP with, never did speak to the pharmacist, it was only when almost two years ago and I was taken to A&E with gall bladder problems and a consultant who did things by the book, sent me for a colonoscopy, that was when the two tumours were found, bowel cancer was diagnosed and I have spent the last 19 months on the roller coaster that is cancer. Major surgery, an ileostomy, chemotherapy, scans and finding out that the small bit of blood on the loo paper was indicative of stage 4 advanced cancer, a disease I won’t ever recover from.

Beating Bowel Cancer, a charity I support, runs campaigns all year round to raise awareness of symptoms and encourage people to get diagnosed early. This month the charity has rolled out a new campaign called the Bowel Movement ….yes it’s a play on words that may shock…. good, I hope it does, it might make people sit up and take notice! The ‘Bowel Movement’ aims to get people talking about bowel cancer and asks everyone affected by the disease to pledge their support online to help spread awareness however they can.

In addition, campaigns like this one by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, and the recent government campaigns, Be Clear on Cancer in England and Detect Cancer Early in Scotland, will all help to spread vital symptoms messages about bowel cancer. I hope this drive to raise awareness of bowel cancer continues because, with early diagnosis, it can be beaten.