Death rates from Britain's second biggest killer cancer have plummeted thanks to earlier detection and better treatment, a report said today.

Death rates from Britain's second biggest killer cancer have plummeted thanks to earlier detection and better treatment, a report said today.

The study shows a 36% fall in bowel cancer mortality among women in England and Wales between 1971 and 1998, and a 20% fall for men over the same period.

Experts believe the reductions are partly due to patients overcoming their shyness to report embarrassing symptoms to GPs.

It is also due to advances in treatment, such as chemotherapy using combinations of drugs, which have improved survival and quality of life.

However the disease still kills around 17,000 people a year in the UK, claiming more lives than any other cancer apart from lung cancer.

Dr Lesley Walker, head of scientific information at the Cancer Research Campaign, which published today's report, said: "We're delighted that more lives are being saved from bowel cancer, thanks to better reporting and treatment of the disease.

"But UK survival rates are still lagging far behind those in the US and this shameful situation can only be changed with greater investment in our health service.

"We also need to investigate why death rates are falling for women more than for men. This may be because women are more likely to go to their doctor with early symptoms."

In the United States, 60% of people with bowel cancer survive for five years or more, compared with 40% in Britain.

One reason suggested for the discrepancy is that people in the US are screened for the disease. Two screening trials are under way in the UK.

Other findings in the report show that worldwide there have been marked rises in the numbers of people developing bowel cancer, particularly in populations with traditionally lower rates such as the Japanese.

But the incidence of bowel cancer in England and Wales has only increased very slightly over the last 25 years, and in the US incidence it has declined by up to 20% over the last 10 years.

Researchers believe diet is largely responsible for variations in bowel cancer incident rates across the globe.

Evidence suggests that up to 80% of bowel cancer cases are linked to diet. Diets low in red and processed meat and high in fruit, vegetables and fibre are associated with a reduced cancer risk, while alcohol consumption may produce an increased risk.

Dr Walker said: "It is easy to see why incidence in many countries is going up as a more westernised diet becomes more common.

"In the UK this situation has apparently reached a plateau, but in the US it has dipped and we're not entirely sure why."

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