Report: More Colon Testing Leads to 30% Drop in Cancer Rates

cover of the report "Colorectal Cancer Facts and Figures 2014"

The rate at which people are diagnosed with colon cancer in the US has dropped 30% in the last 10 years for those aged 50 years and older, according to a new report from the American Cancer Society. Researchers credit the drop to more people getting recommended screening tests. Screening is the process of looking for cancer or pre-cancer in people who have no symptoms of the disease.

Death rates from colon cancer have also declined rapidly within the last decade. The report says even more deaths could be avoided if everyone got their screening tests on time.

“These continuing drops in incidence and mortality show the lifesaving potential of colon cancer screening; a potential that an estimated 20 million of Americans over 50, who have never been screened, have not benefitted from,” said Richard C. Wender, MD, American Cancer Society chief cancer control officer, in a statement. “Continuing this hopeful trend will require concrete efforts to make sure all patients, particularly those who are economically disenfranchised, have access to screening and to the best care available.”

The findings are published in Colorectal Cancer Statistics, 2014 in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians and its companion piece Colorectal Cancer Facts & Figures 2014-2016. The reports, published every 3 years, provide a detailed look at colon cancer trends and present the latest information on survival, prevention, early detection, treatment, and ongoing research.

Colorectal cancer, commonly called colon cancer, is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the third leading cause of cancer death in both men and women in the US. The report estimates that 136,830 people will be diagnosed with colon cancer and 50,310 people will die from it in 2014. Approximately 5%, or 1 in 20, Americans will be diagnosed with colon cancer in their lifetime. As of January 1, 2012, there were almost 1.2 million colon cancer survivors in the US.

Screening saves lives

Screening has the potential to prevent colon cancer because it can often detect pre-cancerous growths, called polyps, in the colon and rectum. Although most polyps will not turn into cancer, removing them can prevent cancer from occurring. And if colon cancer is present, regular screening increases the chances of finding it earlier, when it’s easier to treat.

Most people who are diagnosed with colon cancer are older than 50. That’s why the American Cancer Society recommends colon cancer screening begin at age 50 for people at average risk. But some people have certain risk factors that make them more likely to develop it, and to get it at an earlier age. This may mean they should start screening earlier, or get tested more often than other people. Talk to your doctor about when you should start and which tests might be right for you.

Increased use of screening tests in the past decade has led to unprecedented progress in reducing colon cancer incidence and death rates in the US, according to the report. For example, colonoscopy use has almost tripled among adults ages 50 to 75, from 19% in 2000 to 55% in 2010. However, in 2010 only 59% of people ages 50 or older reported being up to date with colon cancer screening.

Studies about why more people are not getting tested have found the reasons include cost and lack of access to health care, usually because of no health insurance. But they’ve also found that a doctor’s recommendation increases the chances someone will get screened whether they’re insured or not. And the likelihood of screening goes up even more when the doctor gives patients information about all the types of screening tests available.

80% by 2018

A coalition of more than 70 public, private, and voluntary organizations, led by the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is joining together to focus efforts on dramatically increasing colon screening rates in the US to 80% by 2018. The National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable (NCCRT) plans to achieve this goal through improved communication, coordination, and collaboration among health agencies, medical-professional organizations, and the public.

“This is one of the great combined public health commitments I have seen in my career and it represents the entire spectrum of organizations who have one goal: to increase colon cancer screening rates,” said Wender. “Each organization brings passion, competence, and creativity to our shared effort.”

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

 Colorectal Cancer Facts & Figures 2014-2016. Published March 17, 2014. American Cancer Society, Atlanta, Ga.

Colorectal Cancer Statistics, 2014. Published March 17, 2014 in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. First author: Rebecca Siegel, MPH, American Cancer Society, Atlanta, Ga.

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