Bowel cancer deaths may dramatically increase after the COVID-19 pandemic

The suspension of screening for bowel cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic may cause thousands of people to die early from the disease.

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, and is responsible for the deaths of around 16,300 people in the UK every year.1

The bowel cancer screening programme was effectively halted in March 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. It is now feared that its suspension will lead to a dramatic rise in the incidence of bowel cancer in the wake of the pandemic.

The aim of screening for bowel cancer is to detect the disease at an early stage, when treatment has the best chance of success. Screening can also identify polyps (non-cancerous growths) that may become cancerous, which can be removed to reduce the risk of bowel cancer developing.

If bowel cancer is identified at the earliest stage, treatment will be successful in more than 90% of people.2 However, survival rates drop the later the disease is identified—bowel tumours spread aggressively, and are much more difficult to treat when patients present at an advanced stage.

Cancer Research UK has issued safety netting guidance as part of efforts to ensure that people with cancer receive the treatment they need during the pandemic and also in the recovery phase, when the backlog of patients requiring treatment may be considerable. However, more must be done to ensure that opportunities to identify patients with bowel cancer at the earliest stage are not being missed as a result of the pandemic.


  1. Cancer Research UK. Bowel cancer statistics. (accessed 23 June 2020).
  2. Bowel Cancer UK. Bowel cancer screening. (accessed 23 June 2020).