6 Jun 2014

Experts demand bowel cancer action

9:24 am on 6 June 2014

New Zealanders are dying while a 16-year "talkfest" continues about whether to screen for bowel cancer, according to a Canterbury surgeon.

3,000 New Zealanders are diagnosed with bowel cancer a year and 100 people each month - or 1200 people a year - die from it.

Patient and cancer groups say national screening is needed urgently and cancer experts, writing in the Medical Journal, are adding their backing, saying New Zealand has one of the world's highest rates of the cancer but has been one of the slowest to take the next step.

Christchurch colorectal surgeon Frank Frizelle agrees.

"The Government, through its various committees and feedback, has been talking about it for 16 years," Professor Frizelle said.

"The first report said we were short of colonoscopists. The latest report says we're short of colonoscopists.

"We can talk about it for another 16 years, and have another 16 years of deaths that are unnecessary."

Professor Frizelle edits the journal and wrote in it seven years ago that progress then on screening was "incredibly slow".

Since then a four-year pilot screening programme has begun at Waitemata in Auckland, with 129 bowel cancers diagnosed within the first year.

He said the programme's success came as no surprise but that screening must be made available to other New Zealanders too.

"Screening needs to be set up and progressed, not just talked about. What we've heard is a talkfest around this for 16 years."

People crawl through a 12.19m long and 1.22m high replica of a human colon in the United States.

People crawl through a 12.19m long and 1.22m high replica of a human colon in the United States. Photo: AFP

The Government is yet to commit itself to national screening, with a decision not expected until after three years of the pilot, next year.

A lack of those trained to carry out the colonoscopy procedures used for diagnosis is often given as the reason for delays.

Auckland cancer specialist Michael Findlay said national screening would bring demands which would have to be met, such as fast and accurate answers for patients over test results.

"I think we'd probably all agree the studies are out there. It's the implementation that we'd like to see move as fast as possible."

Ann Richardson, a professor of cancer epidemiology, said it should be a priority and decisions were needed urgently.

"There has been a lot of effort put into estimating what will be required already, and I think now the emphasis really needs to be on how do we put what's required in place."

Health Ministry bowel cancer programme clinical head Susan Parry said delays were a thing of the past and the ministry was working as fast as it could.

"We've got the bowel screening pilot going. We're just about to analyse our first-round screening results and we're in a different space," she said.

"I think there is definitely steady progress now."

Ms Parry said $8 million of Budget funding would reduce waiting times for colonoscopies and help officials prepare for national screening, should it get the green light.