Three out of four Americans aged 50 to 70 aren’t getting regular colon cancer screening, according to a survey sponsored by the maker of a new screening test for the disease.
Colon cancer is currently the second leading cancer killer in the United States, with 60,000 Americans expected to die from the disease this year.
The American Cancer Society recommends that everyone get a colonoscopy to test for colon cancer at age 50. But 26 percent of the 1,200 people surveyed said their doctor had never discussed colon cancer screening with them, and 24 percent said they didn’t get screened because they had no symptoms of the disease. Twenty-eight percent said they didn’t want to have a colonoscopy.
Dr. David Stein, director of education for the Colon Cancer Foundation and the chief of the division of colorectal surgery at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, points out that this test isn’t something most people are comfortable chatting about around the water cooler, despite efforts by Katie Couric and others to raise awareness of the need for colon cancer screening. “The stigma of a colonoscopy is pretty significant,” he told Reuters Health.
However, if a person with no family history of the disease has a colonoscopy at 50, the doctor performing the test is able to review the entire colon, and no problems are found, he or she doesn’t need to have the test again for 10 years, Stein added. “At 50 you can go get it done and you’re good ’til 60,” he said.
The survey, conducted by Harris Interactive, was sponsored by EXACT Sciences Corp., a Marlborough, Massachusetts-based company that makes a new non-invasive test that screens for colon cancer by looking for cancer-related DNA in the stool.
Stool DNA tests, which can be done at home, have a roughly 60 percent rate of detection, and rarely yield false-positive results. “When it does detect something, it’s pretty accurate,” Stein said.
Such non-invasive tests are better than nothing for people who refuse to have colonoscopies, according to Stein, who notes that the American Cancer Society advises people who refuse colonoscopies to have some other type of colon cancer screening test.
The worst thing about a colonoscopy is not the test itself, which is usually performed with some sort of anesthesia, it’s the preparation beforehand, Stein noted, in which a person takes laxatives and, in some cases, enemas to clear the bowel. Virtual colonoscopy, in which a CAT scan or MRI is used to scan the bowel, still requires the colon-clearing prep, Stein said, while its effectiveness remains controversial and insurance does not cover it.
Despite the prep’s unpleasantness, Stein adds, it’s a small price to pay for a test that can be lifesaving. “In the big picture it’s a no-brainer.”