Bowel cancer need not be a death sentence, say experts at the National Cancer Intelligence Network and the Northern and Yorkshire Cancer Registry and Information Service.

They report that nine out of 10 people diagnosed with the disease in its early stages will survive, largely thanks to better NHS surgical techniques.

However, early diagnosis is the key, and they warn that survival may depend on immediately reporting symptoms and having them checked promptly.

They considered every person diagnosed in England between 1996 and 2006, and the percentage who survived for at least five years. Of 308,734 patients, 26,727 were diagnosed in the early stages and 93 per cent of these were still alive five years later.

Bowel cancer is divided into four stages - Dukes A, B, C and D - with stage A being the earliest, during which only about 13 per cent of cases are diagnosed. Five-year survival for this group is about 50 per cent overall.

Both organisations are backing the bowel cancer screening programme, which will distribute home-testing kits across England by the end of this year.

Paul Finan, a bowel cancer surgeon and chair of the National Cancer Intelligence Network’s bowel cancer group, said: “Improvements in surgery include using less invasive techniques, and patients receiving better care around the time of surgery, like more sophisticated anaesthetic care and better care during hospital admission and recovery.”