March is National Colon Cancer Awareness Month, a time when organizations intensify efforts to educate people about the importance of regular colorectal cancer screening to save lives from this deadly disease.
Colorectal, or colon, cancer is the third-leading cancer killer of both men and women in the United States and a cause of considerable suffering among more than 136,000 adults diagnosed with colorectal cancer each year.
In 2014, colon cancer is expected to kill 50,310 people – 5,150 of them in California. The fact is that thousands of lives are lost unnecessarily every year, since colon cancer can be prevented through the detection and removal of pre-cancerous polyps found during screening. And colon cancer has a 90 percent survival rate if detected early.
If cancer forms in a polyp, it can eventually begin to grow into the wall of the colon or rectum. When cancer cells are in the wall, they can then grow into blood vessels or lymph vessels. Lymph vessels are thin, tiny channels that carry away waste and fluid. They first drain into nearby lymph nodes, which are bean-shaped structures containing immune cells that help fight against infections. Once cancer cells spread into blood or lymph vessels, they can travel to nearby lymph nodes or to distant parts of the body, such as the liver. Spread to distant parts of the body is called metastasis.
To encourage more people to get screened, the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable, co-founded by the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has launched an aggressive campaign to increase colon cancer screening rate among people 50 and older to 80 percent by 2018. Statistics show that more than 23 million people nationwide 50-plus are not being screened as recommended. The 2018 goal leverages partners in the community to empower patients, providers, community health centers, and health systems to deliver coordinated, quality colorectal cancer screening and follow-up care.
Half of all colon cancer deaths could be prevented if all Americans followed current screening guidelines, which recommend average-risk people begin screening at age 50, and followed all known prevention and early detection interventions (e.g., reductions in obesity, smoking, physical inactivity, and red and processed meat consumption).
What are the key facts people should know about colon cancer? It’s preventable, treatable and beatable with regular screening. There are several screening methods available to choose from, including colonoscopy, sensitive fecal occult blood test and fecal immunochemical test, among others. You should talk with your doctor to decide which method is right for you. The best test is the one you get.
Tests that detect precancerous polyps allow doctors to remove the polyps and potentially prevent cancer altogether. And while cancers detected at the earliest stage have a five-year survival rate of 90 percent, only 40 percent of colon cancers are currently detected at this stage, partly because too few people are screened.
Over the next four years, community health organizations will continue to encourage more people to get screened for colon cancer, and take an active role in helping to reach the 80 percent screening goal and significantly reduce avoidable deaths from colon cancer. By standing behind this important initiative and having it as the foundation for everything we do this month and for the next four years, we can make great progress in the fight against colorectal cancer.
Richard Wender, M.D., is chief cancer control officer for the American Cancer Society, a partner of Solano Coalition for Better Health.