Fear behind low bowel screening figures as one-in-four say cancer diagnosis is ‘death sentence’

Fear and fatalistic beliefs about cancer are leading to fewer people taking up Ireland’s bowel cancer screening programme, research commissioned by the Irish Cancer Society reveals.

A survey of around 2,000 people eligible for BowelScreen found that almost one in four (24.3%) believe that cancer is a death sentence. This false belief is more common in non-users of the home based bowel-screening test than users, indicating that it’s a reason why many decline to take part in this potentially life-saving service.

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in Ireland, with 2,700 people here being diagnosed with the disease each year. Joan Kelly, Cancer Support Manager at the Irish Cancer Society said: “Such fatalistic attitudes are worrying when we know that, if caught early, bowel cancer is extremely treatable. Overall, more than 3 in 5 (62.6%) people with bowel cancer will survive for at least five years and 95% of people diagnosed at stage 1 will survive this disease. That’s why BowelScreen can prove so important.

“Bowel cancer most commonly occurs in people over 60 years of age. BowelScreen offers a free home test to men and women aged 60 to 69 every two years. 60% of bowel cancer cases occur in men but only 35% of eligible males have availed of the State’s free screening programme compared to 45% of women. It is vital that people avail of the free service that is offered every two years to men and women aged between 60 and 69 as screening plays an important role in diagnosing cancers.

“A healthy lifestyle and a diet, high in fibre, can also help to reduce your risk of developing bowel cancer. We would also encourage people to be aware of the signs and symptoms and to take our online Bowel Health Checker:”

The Irish Cancer Society-funded research, undertaken by Dr Nicholas Clarke and carried out between the National Cancer Registry of Ireland and University College Cork, also found:


  • Among non-users of bowel screening, two in seven (28.1%) agreed that a cancer diagnosis is a death sentence. Among male non-users only, this figure rose to 40%, compared to 24% of female non-users.


  • More than 3 in 5 respondents agreed or strongly agreed that cancer is their greatest health fear. This figure rose among nonusers (65%) and was highest among female non-users (68%).


  • However, just over 96% believed that going to your doctor as quickly as possible increases your chance of surviving cancer.


  • It has also been found that a partner can have a positive influence on taking up the opportunity to be screened for bowel cancer, with the study noting that the effect of the influence of a partner was greater in men than women.

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