Colorectal Cancer Prevention and Early Detection

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Importance of colorectal cancer screening

Screening is the process of looking for cancer or pre-cancer in people who have no symptoms of the disease. Regular colorectal cancer screening is one of the most powerful weapons against colorectal cancer. Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States. Overall, the lifetime risk for developing colorectal cancer is a little less than 1 in 20 (5%). This risk is slightly lower for women than for men.

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death when numbers for both men and women are combined.

The death rate (the number of deaths per 100,000 people per year) of colorectal cancer has been dropping for several decades. One reason for this is that today, colorectal polyps are more often found by screening and removed before they can develop into cancers.

It can take as many as 10 to 15 years for a polyp to develop into colorectal cancer. Regular screening can prevent many cases of colorectal cancer altogether by finding and removing certain types of polyps before they have the chance to turn into cancer. Screening can also help find colorectal cancer early, when it’s small, hasn’t spread, and is easier to treat.

When colorectal cancer is found at an early stage before it has spread, the 5-year relative survival rate is about 90%. But only about 4 out of 10 colorectal cancers are found at this early stage. When cancer has spread outside the colon or rectum, survival rates are lower.

Unfortunately, only a little more than half of people who should get tested for colorectal cancer get the tests that they should. This may be due to things like lack of public and health care provider awareness of screening options, costs, and health insurance coverage issues.

See “Colorectal cancer screening tests” for more on the tests used to screen for colorectal cancer. The section “American Cancer Society recommendations for colorectal cancer early detection” has our guidelines for using these tests to find colorectal cancer and polyps.


Last Medical Review: 01/27/2016
Last Revised: 06/24/2016