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Colon Cancer Screening Rates Too Low

New Blood Test May Make Screening Easier

WebMD Health News

March 13, 2003 -- Even though colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S., new statistics show that only about half of American adults over 50 are getting the recommended screening. Although the thought of receiving a colonoscopy or barium enema may make some people squirm, researchers say regular colorectal cancer screening could prevent many of the nearly 60,000 deaths caused by the disease in the U.S. each year.

In addition, a new study suggests that an experimental new blood test may soon make it easier to identify people who may be at increased risk for colon cancer and would require more rigorous screening.

In a report released today by the CDC, researchers found that only about 45% of adults over 50 in 2001 have ever had FOBT (a test that checks for blood in a person's stool) and less than a quarter had one within the last 12 months, as recommended.

The study also found that only 47% had ever had a sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy, screening tests that involve inserting a scope into the rectum to look for unusual growths. Overall, only 53% of adults over 50 had received one or a combination of the two types of screening tests within the recommended time period.

Researchers say those 2001 rates are an improvement over those found in earlier years. For example, less than 20% of adults over 50 in 1997 and 1999 had received FOBT within the last year and less than a third had received a colonscopy or sigmoidoscopy in the last five years.

But they say the findings show that colorectal cancer screening rates are much lower than screening rates for other types of cancer, such as breast and cervical cancer, and increased awareness of the problem is needed to ensure wider access to colorectal cancer screening.

Current guidelines by the American Cancer Society call for adults over 50 to receive one or a combination of the following colon cancer screening options:

  • Annual home fecal occult blood testing (FOBT).
  • Sigmoidoscopy every five years.
  • Colonoscopy every 10 years.
  • Double contrast barium enema every five years.

Earlier and more frequent screening is also recommended for people with a family history or other risk factors for colorectal cancer. But researchers say they are one step closer to finding a way to predict which people might have a higher than normal risk of developing the disease.

In a report published in the March 14 issue of Science, Johns Hopkins University researchers say they've developed a blood test that can pick out genetic "red flags" that can identify people at increased risk of colorectal cancer.

If further studies confirm these findings, the test might one day allow doctors to follow people with these genetic risk factors for colorectal cancer more closely and help prevent the disease from developing, or catch it in its early stages.

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