Can Colorectal Polyps and Cancer Be Found Early?

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 tools against colorectal cancer. 

Screening can often find colorectal cancer early, when it's small, hasn't spread, and might be easier to treat. Regular screening can even prevent colorectal cancer. A polyp can take as many as 10 to 15 years to develop into cancer. With screening, doctors can find and remove polyps before they have the chance to turn into cancer.

Why is colorectal cancer screening important?

Colorectal cancer is a leading cause of cancer death for both men and women in the US. But 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 colorectal polyps are now more often found by screening and removed before they can develop into cancers.

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, about 1 in 3 people in the US who should get tested for colorectal cancer have never been screened. This may be because they don't know that regular testing could save their lives from this disease, or due to things like cost and health insurance coverage issues.

See Colorectal Cancer Screening Tests for more on the tests used to screen for colorectal cancer. American Cancer Society Recommendations for Colorectal Cancer Early Detection has our guidelines for using these tests to find colorectal cancer and polyps.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures 2020. Atlanta, American Cancer Society; 2020.

American Cancer Society. Colorectal Cancer Facts & Figures 2020-2022. Atlanta, American Cancer Society; 2020.

Howlader N, Noone AM, Krapcho M, Miller D, Brest A, Yu M, Ruhl J, Tatalovich Z, Mariotto A, Lewis DR, Chen HS, Feuer EJ, Cronin KA (eds). SEER Cancer Statistics Review, 1975-2016, National Cancer Institute. Bethesda, MD, https://seer.cancer.gov/csr/1975_2016/, based on November 2018 SEER data submission, posted to the SEER web site, April 2019.

References

American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures 2020. Atlanta, American Cancer Society; 2020.

American Cancer Society. Colorectal Cancer Facts & Figures 2020-2022. Atlanta, American Cancer Society; 2020.

Howlader N, Noone AM, Krapcho M, Miller D, Brest A, Yu M, Ruhl J, Tatalovich Z, Mariotto A, Lewis DR, Chen HS, Feuer EJ, Cronin KA (eds). SEER Cancer Statistics Review, 1975-2016, National Cancer Institute. Bethesda, MD, https://seer.cancer.gov/csr/1975_2016/, based on November 2018 SEER data submission, posted to the SEER web site, April 2019.

Last Revised: June 29, 2020

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