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Colon Cancer Rates Decline, Highlighting Role of Screening

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April 28, 2014

Colon cancer rates have dropped by as much as 30% for adults aged 50 and older in the U.S., according to the latest statistics published by the American Cancer Society (ACS). The report is based on data from several national programs and registries. While more needs to be done to ensure widespread access to screening, the new data suggest that improved use of colonoscopy, in particular among people 50 to 75 years of age, has contributed to lowering colorectal cancer rates.

During the decade 2001-2010, overall incidence of new cases decreased by approximately 3% per year, with the largest drops among adults 65 and older. According to the ACS report, "the dramatic declines in colorectal cancer incidence over the past decade have been attributed to the widespread uptake of colonoscopy screening, which increased from 19% in 2000 to 55% in 2010 among adults aged 50 to 75 years." Colon cancer death rates decreased by a similar rate, about 3% per year, among both men and women during the same time period.

Colorectal cancer, commonly known as colon cancer, is the third most common cancer and the third leading cause of cancer death among men and women in the U.S., says the ACS. Based on the most recent analysis, over 70,000 men and 65,000 women will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2014 and approximately 26,000 men and 24,000 women will die of the disease. While the exact cause is not known, risk appears to be associated with certain genetic, dietary, and lifestyle factors. It is both preventable and treatable if detected early, and studies have shown that regular screening could prevent one-third of colorectal cancer deaths in this country.

Current guidelines by several health organizations recommend universal screening of people at average risk beginning at age 50. For those with one or more risk factors for colon cancer, the recommendations are for earlier, more aggressive and more frequent screening.

Advice on the type of tests and frequency of screening vary somewhat, but most of these groups agree that colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy are the preferred methods of screening. They can help prevent cancer by finding pre-cancerous polyps so they can be removed before they develop into cancer. Other methods only detect cancer after it has developed. [For more on screening recommendations, including risk factors and types of tests used, see Screening Tests For Adults 50 and Up: Colorectal cancer.]

While the latest statistics are promising, the ACS pointed out some areas of concern. In particular, racial and socioeconomic differences were seen in the rates. Incidence and death rates during the 2006-2010 timeframe were found to be highest in African Americans and lowest in Asians/Pacific Islanders, with mortality rates among African Americans roughly 50% higher than those among Caucasians. The ACS stated that much of this disparity results from the disproportionately low socioeconomic status in the African American community in the U.S., leading the ACS to emphasize the importance of improving access to and encouraging participation in screening for all people for whom it is recommended.

Colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy are very effective screening tools. However, these tests must be performed by a doctor, require some preparation, and are somewhat invasive. Improving other testing options might boost screening rates further. Researchers continue to examine the effectiveness of other, non-invasive screening methods, such as stool DNA tests (see Stool DNA Test Gets Nod from FDA Advisory Committee).

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NOTE: This article is based on research that utilizes the sources cited here as well as the collective experience of the Lab Tests Online Editorial Review Board. This article is periodically reviewed by the Editorial Board and may be updated as a result of the review. Any new sources cited will be added to the list and distinguished from the original sources used. To access online sources, copy and paste the URL into your browser.

Bankhead, Charles. Colon Cancer Deaths Decline. Published Mar 17, 2014 and updated Mar 17, 2014. MedPage Today. Available online through Accessed April 2014.

Siegel R, DeSantis C, and Jemal A. Colorectal cancer statistics, 2014. Article first published online Mar 17 2014. Available online through Accessed April 2014.

American Cancer Society. Report: More Colon Testing Leads to 30% Drop in Cancer Rates. By Stacy Simon. Article date: March 17, 2014. Available online at through Accessed April 2014.