Screening for colorectal cancer may be leveling off, with only two in three Americans between ages 50 and 75 getting the recommended tests.
A recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 23 million older men and women have never been tested for colorectal cancer.
The cancer develops in the tissues of the colon (large intestine) or rectum, both of which are part of the digestive system. It typically starts as a polyp, which is a growth of tissue.
The three screening methods are:
- Fecal occult blood test (FOBT) or fecal immunochemical test (FIT)
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that all adults get screened with one or more of these tests beginning at age 50.
The most common test is a colonoscopy, during which a doctor uses a flexible tube to view the rectum and the entire length of the colon. During the procedure, doctors look for and remove polyps before they become cancerous. The test is recommended once every 10 years.
The FOBT and FIT tests are less invasive and can be done at home. Both are considered as effective as a colonoscopy for healthy adults and should be done yearly.
Flexible sigmoidoscopy is least used among the three tests. With this procedure, a tiny camera in a tube looks for cancer in only the lower part of the colon, while a colonoscopy covers the entire colon. The test is recommended every five years or every three years if done along with the FOBT or FIT tests.
Colonoscopy screening has been credited for saving lives. Colorectal cancer death rates have been falling for more than two decades as colorectal screening has been on the rise. In 2002, the screening rate was 54 percent and in 2010 it was 65 percent.
In 2000, Katie Couric underwent a live colonoscopy on the Today show after her husband died of colon cancer in 1998. The increase in the screening rate over the past decade has been attributed in part to Couric, the show’s former host.
Physicians and public health officials are concerned that the screening rate in 2012 was the same as it was in 2010, marking the first time in at least 10 years without an increase. The reason why is unclear.
This year, an estimated 102,500 men and women will be diagnosed with colon cancer and more than 40,000 people will be diagnosed with rectal cancer.
Raising awareness of screening options – including encouraging family members to get tested – could boost the screening rate and help detect colorectal cancer early, when it’s most treatable. Learn more about colorectal cancer.