New figures released this week show that one in five bowel cancer patients are diagnosed as an emergency, where cases are usually more advanced and difficult to treat.

This is according to a new report from the National Bowel Cancer Audit that looked at 29,000 cases of bowel cancer in England and Wales between 2010 and 2011.

Overall, 21.1% of patients with bowel cancer were admitted as an emergency with severe and potentially life-threatening symptoms.

Nearly one-third of these admissions were not suitable for surgical intervention (29.5%) and of those that had emergency surgery, more than one in ten had died within 90 days of the emergency operation (11.9%).

The report’s authors are now calling on the public and the government to help “break taboo that locks symptoms behind the bathroom door”, as emergency admissions continue to cause concern.

The audit also shows that more people are having keyhole (laparoscopic) surgery and those dying from major surgery have fallen for the fourth consecutive year.

Laparoscopic surgery rates rose in the same time period from 25% to more than 40%. Keyhole surgery was found to be associated with both shorter hospital stay (six days, compared to nine days for open surgery patients) and a reduced risk of post-operative death.

However, keyhole surgery is usually performed on fitter patients, with less advanced disease, who come into hospital for a planned operation.

The report was commissioned by the Healthcare Quality Improvement Partnership and developed by the Health and Social Care Information Centre, the Association of Coloproctology of Great Britain and Ireland and the Royal College of Surgeons of England.

In response to the audit, Mark Flannagan, chief executive of the Beating Bowel Cancer charity, said: “It is encouraging to see that overall care for bowel cancer patients is largely improving but there are still unacceptable variations in the level of treatment across the board. Also, much still needs to be done to tackle public attitudes to and understanding of the disease if we are to break the taboo that is bowel cancer."

He said the big concern was that too many people are being diagnosed as emergency cases. "All too often worries and embarrassment mean that too many people aren’t aware of the symptoms or they delay seeking help until it’s too late and they need emergency surgery when their bowel cancer is at a more advanced stage. The introduction of laparoscopic ‘key hole’ surgery was a huge step forward for bowel cancer patients resulting in shorter hospital stays and quicker recovery. However, such treatment is still not available across the country so we need to ensure that it is rolled out further and that training for surgeons is provided so that more patients are offered this treatment where appropriate.”