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Facing the unseen enemy: taking action against colorectal cancer’s indiscriminate reach across age, gender and race

Colorectal cancer (CRC) is a silent killer with a widespread impact that touches millions of Americans every year, and its incidence is increasing, especially among younger people. The American Cancer Society says that in 2023, roughly 153,020 people will be diagnosed with CRC, and about 52,550 people will die. 2

Early screening dramatically increases the likelihood of survival, yet over 49 million eligible individuals have yet to undergo recommended screening.1 We are all susceptible to CRC, screening early and on time is the best way to detect cancer when it’s most treatable. 

Colorectal cancer can progress asymptomatically in individuals for many years and routine screening is the most effective approach to detect it early before it metastasizes. Despite many accurate and available screening tests, the effectiveness of screening for CRC has not reached its full potential because of the low patient compliance rates. There is good news, however; screening technology has evolved. An accurate, novel, and patient-preferred blood test exists that may help increase screening compliance.3,4 Getting screened is vital to survival. It is crucial for healthcare professionals like you to remind patients to get screened. It could literally mean the difference between life and death.

Dispel the Myth: Patients Think Colorectal Cancer is an Old Person’s Disease

Some younger patients may believe that getting screened is something only their parents or grandparents need to complete, but the American Cancer Society (ACS) and United State Preventative Services Task Force (USPTF) recommends that individuals at average risk for CRC start getting screened at age 45. 5 This is especially pertinent considering that diagnoses in people under the age of 55 years nearly doubled between 1995 and 2019, from 11% to 20% 2. The latest study in cancer statistics highlights that CRC has become the deadliest cancer in men under 50. 6

While age and family history play a role in a patient’s likelihood of developing CRC, there are other contributing factors. Lifestyle habits like not getting enough exercise, not eating enough fruits and vegetables, consuming too little fiber and too much fat, excessive drinking, tobacco use, and not maintaining a healthy weight can all increase the likelihood that an individual will be diagnosed with CRC.

CRC Screening Saves Lives

Approximately 60% of CRC deaths could be prevented with regular screening. 7, 8 The first step is making patients aware of their options, especially because CRC testing is getting more manageable for physicians and patients. Here are some real stories about how screening has saved patients’ lives.

John’s Story: John had not been screened for 20 years when his primary care physician, Dr. Gregory Robertson, MD, diagnosed him with stage II colorectal cancer. 

Dr. Robertson shared that nearly 50% of his patients are not screened because current methods, like colonoscopy or stool-based tests, are challenging to convince patients to complete. However, with the new blood-based screening option, Dr. Robertson has seen a significant increase in screening and noted, “Patients will recognize right away that this is an easy, fast test that simplifies colon cancer screening enormously.” Thanks to the screening test, John was able to detect colon cancer and undergo surgery to remove it. With the care he received from his physicians, he was able to quickly return to his normal life.

CRC isn’t just about age, and it’s not just having a family history. In fact, you can be perfectly healthy and still be affected.

Jay’s story: For over a year, Jay had been experiencing abdominal pain and rectal bleeding; when he shared his symptoms with his provider, it was dismissed as gas and hemorrhoids. Before May 2022, the recommended age for CRC screening was 50 and above, so Jay, who was only 47 then, was advised against getting a colonoscopy. 

When his wife changed healthcare providers and suggested Jay do the same, he did. Thankfully his new provider took a different approach. After taking notice of his symptoms, Jay received a colonoscopy, which revealed what no one initially thought was possible: it was cancer.

Jay did not have a family history or genetic predisposition toward colorectal cancer, which made his diagnosis even more difficult to process. But his family rallied around him and offered support. Fortunately, his care team did as well; Jay recalls his surgeon telling him before they went in, “Don’t worry. We’re going to take care of this for you.”

During Jay’s surgery, 37 lymph nodes were removed, three of which were cancerous. He was given a stage IIIB diagnosis and recommended 12 rounds of chemotherapy. Since finishing his chemotherapy in 2013, Jay has luckily shown no evidence of disease. He is coming up on 10 years of being cancer-free. Had his concerns been dismissed any longer, he may not be here today. 

John and Jay defied the odds with cancer. They understand the importance of CRC screening and are quick to remind others about the importance of getting screened, listening to your body, and advocating for oneself.

 How Providers Can Increase Screening Rates

The first step (and one of the simplest steps) you can take in improving colorectal cancer screening rates is through education and awareness. For your patients that are 45 years of age and older, keep these things in mind:

● Discuss screening at every annual physical.

● Send patients regular reminders to get screened. 

● Discuss screening options with your patients

● Ask them how you can make the process easier for them. Sometimes, all patients need is reassurance or a little extra guidance.

There are many factors that keep patients from completing CRC screening: Fear, bowel preparation, embarrassment, a belief that they are not at risk because they don’t have a family history, lack symptoms, and have a belief that screening is unnecessary. 

Studies indicate that healthcare providers’ recommendations are the primary motivating factors that drives people to undergo colorectal cancer screening.9 As we mark the end of CRC awareness month, we thank you for your diligent work and encourage you to continue promoting CRC awareness among patients. Experts say, “The best test is one that gets done”. By detecting early signs and assisting patients in combating this silent yet deadly disease, you play a crucial role in fighting against colorectal cancer. 

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