Bowel cancer screening could save thousands of lives, according to a new study. Researchers from Cancer Research UK have found that patients who attend bowel screening are more likely to be diagnosed with bowel cancer at an early stage and have a better chance of survival than those who wait until they have symptoms of the disease.

"When bowel cancer is diagnosed at an earlier stage, it's easier to treat, has a lower chance of coming back and better survival rates," said Sam Johnson, researcher at the West Midlands Cancer Intelligence Unit, in a statement.

Researchers discovered this when they analysed data retrieved from the West Midlands Cancer Intelligence Unit.

Researchers looked at bowel cancers diagnosed between January 2006 and September 2011 in people aged 60-69 years.

Researchers compared the stage at diagnosis of bowel cancers picked up through screening and those diagnosed from symptoms.

The results showed that 18.5 per cent of bowel cancers detected through screening were at the earliest stages compared with 9.4 per cent of cancers diagnosed through symptomatic routes.

"Our research shows that screening can play an important role in improving bowel cancer survival by picking up cancers at an earlier stage," Johnson said.

Bowel cancer, which is also known as colorectal cancer, is a cancer that starts in the large intestine. Symptoms of the cancer include severe abdominal pain, blood in the stool, and sudden weight loss.

Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in the UK. Nearly 40,000 people are diagnosed with the disease each year. Of them, 17,894 cases were women, making it the second most common cancer in women after breast cancer; nearly 22,097 cases were men, making it the third most common cancer after prostate and lung cancer.

Researchers said that once the NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme has been established for several more years, and has been rolled out completely to people aged 60-74 years, they would expect to see fewer late-stage cancers.

"When bowel cancer is found at the earliest stage, there is an excellent chance of survival, with more than 90 per cent of people surviving the disease at least five years," said Chris Carrigan, head of the National Cancer Intelligence Network, in a statement. "Compared with breast and cervical cancers, bowel cancer tends to have a lower five-year survival rate."

"This study highlights the potential improvements we can make through encouraging more people to take-up their screening invitation so the disease is diagnosed earlier," he concluded.