Calls to lower bowel cancer screening age after disease becomes increasingly common in younger people

There are calls for the Government to urgently address "unacceptable" barriers to bowel cancer diagnosis for younger New Zealanders.

Experts said bowel cancer is becoming increasingly common for younger people despite the screening age being 60. 

More than 3000 New Zealanders are diagnosed with the silent killer annually, 350 of whom are aged under 50, and 1200 die from the disease each year. 

Bowel Cancer NZ Medical Advisor Professor Frank Frizelle said bowel cancer is rising in younger patients at a concerning rate.

Prof Frizelle said colon cancer has risen by 14 percent and rectal cancer by 18 percent in men under 50 alone in the past decade. 

"In the next decade, it's estimated that one in 10 colon cancers and one in four rectal cancers will be diagnosed in adults younger than 50."

But despite this, the age for bowel cancer screening is 60 years old.

The government plans to lower the age for Māori patients to 50, but Bowel Cancer NZ would like to see it go further and lower it to 45 for all Kiwis.  

Twenty-two percent of bowel cancers in Māori patients are picked up between the ages of 50 to 59, however, 12 percent of all bowel cancers diagnosed in New Zealand are in their fifties.

"We mustn't forget Aotearoa New Zealand has a high rate of bowel cancer, costing as many lives as breast and prostate cancers combined," Bowel Cancer NZ general manager Rebekah Heal said.

Auckland resident Anna Heritage-Sao said she was "dumbfounded" when she was told she had bowel cancer at age 32.

She was in ED after experiencing excruciating back pain and was discharged with a diagnosis of a possible kidney stone.

Her GP referred her for a CT scan followed by an urgent colonoscopy where she found out the devastating news.

"I was in shock really. I mean, cancer at 32... really? I couldn't get my head around it, as I didn't feel sick at all, but of course, that's the thing with bowel cancer, it's called 'the silent killer' for that very reason."

Heritage-Sao had the six-centimetre tumour removed and is now cancer free.

She is a passionate advocate for Pasifika health and encourages adults of all ages to get any worrying symptoms checked out immediately.

Bowel Cancer NZ has launched its Never Too Young campaign for the fifth year to help get younger people with symptoms of cancer referred for further tests without unnecessary delays.   

"GPs and health professionals need to be able to refer patients with worrying symptoms no matter how young and have the confidence they'll get timely access to specialist assessment and appropriate investigation in a timely manner," Prof Frizelle said.

"Right now many GPs have valid concerns that younger patients they refer for public hospital investigation will be denied assessment due to their youth and perceived lower risk."

He said the burden of COVID on the health system has not only discourage patients from getting their symptoms checked but has exacerbated already lengthy waiting lists for investigative colonoscopies.

Bowel Cancer New Zealand is calling for a clear plan from Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand to fix delays younger patients face accessing much-needed diagnostic screening - delays made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.