Bowel Cancer Awareness Month – a month for cautious optimism

29th April 2022 Clinical Negligence

April has been bowel cancer awareness month and here at JMW, we’ve been improving our understanding of, and reflecting on, the disease. We frequently represent clients with bowel cancer and it is helpful to consider how it can be prevented, how it can be treated and how our clients can be supported when they have received a diagnosis of bowel cancer.

I attended, along with a number of my colleagues in the specialist clinical negligence department, a very helpful webinar given by Bowel Cancer UK which was aimed at raising awareness of the disease. I was shocked to hear that 43,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year in the UK but I was also reassured to learn that early detection and treatment makes a significant difference to the outcome and prognosis. Bowel cancer is a very treatable cancer and I left the webinar feeling hopeful. 

Sadly, we often represent clients whose diagnosis of bowel cancer has been delayed, despite them seeking medical advice when they noticed symptoms. One of my clients, who I will call Michael, was found to have anaemia during a routine blood test. As a man over the age of 60 with unexplained anaemia, this warranted urgent investigations to rule out bowel cancer. Although his GP made the referral, there was an administrative error at the hospital and he was discharged without any investigations. There were then several further opportunities for his anaemia to be investigated again, but none of the doctors he saw took any action.

A year later, it was finally arranged that he would have a colonoscopy, a simple procedure involving a doctor using a small camera to look at your bowel. On this occasion, the clinician failed to look at all of the bowel and a suspicious polyp was missed. Michael was reassured that he did not have cancer and was discharged.

It was another 10 months before Michael noticed a significant amount of blood when going to the toilet and his GP again referred him for investigations. On this occasion, the clinician completing the colonoscopy did make the correct diagnosis of bowel cancer. 

Devastatingly, by this stage, Michael’s cancer was Stage 4 and had spread to his liver. The cancer was inoperable and Michael now has terminal cancer. 

If Michael’s cancer had been diagnosed when he was first referred to the hospital, he would have had surgery and the cancer would have been cured. Michael has suffered a catalogue of errors and this is a truly tragic example of when bowel cancer care can go terribly wrong. 

I am hopeful that Bowel Cancer Awareness month will have made people more aware of the symptoms of bowel cancer and when they need to see a doctor. (You can read a blog post by my colleague, Angharad, about the symptoms of bowel cancer here) But I am also hopeful that doctors and nurses are diligent in investigating suspicious symptoms and do what is needed to bring about an early diagnosis. Because when that happens, stories like Michael’s will not be repeated and a diagnosis of bowel cancer does not need to be quite so daunting.

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Liz Davies is an Associate Solicitor located in Manchesterin our Clinical Negligence department

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