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Are we failing young people with cancer?

When you think of cancer, a glamorous mum in her mid-30s is not the first image that springs to mind.

But You, Me and the Big C podcaster Dame Deborah James was just 35 when she found out she had bowel cancer. Blood and stool tests had come back normal and her GP had laughed "not once, but three times over the course of six months" at the idea she could possibly have a tumour in her bowels. The diagnosis came only when she paid to have her colon examined privately.

Her experience has raised questions about how good we are at spotting and treating cancer in the under-40s. Simply - are we failing young people with cancer?

Overall, around 4.3% of cancers diagnosed in the UK are in the under-40s, while those over 75 make up more than a third of all cancer cases, which poses a challenge for us and the doctors who treat us.

When we are young, we're less likely to attribute any ill health to cancer. Changes to our bowel movements could just be stress, blood in the toilet after we poo could be inflammatory bowel disease or haemorrhoids. Because, for most people, cancer is something that happens to our parents or grandparents.

Your doctor should be alert to major warning signs of cancer, but there is a medical saying: "When you hear hooves, think horses, not zebras". It's a call to look for the most common or likely explanation, and the younger you are, the less likely cancer is to be behind your symptoms. This helps channel the health service's limited resources to those most likely to need them.

But that means some younger people aren't being seen quickly enough, although the problem can affect older people too. Bowel Cancer UK's Never Too Young report in 2020 found that four in 10 people surveyed had to visit their GP three or more times before being referred for further tests to see if they had cancer.

"I don't think GPs are a problem," says Genevieve Edwards, chief executive of Bowel Cancer UK. "It [bowel cancer] is rare in younger people... It will usually be something else."

The question is - what if you are the zebra, that relatively rare case who does have cancer at a young age?"

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Source: BBC News, 14 May 2022


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