American Cancer Society cuts recommended screening age for colon cancer
Early detection is the key when it comes to battling most cancers. But with colorectal cancer, timely screenings could actually prevent cancer from developing.
It’s one of the reasons the American Cancer Society recently lowered the recommended screening age for those at average risk for colon cancer from 50 to 45 — a decision applauded by local doctors.
“I’m very excited,” said Dr. Claudia Gruss, with the Western Connecticut Medical Group, which includes Danbury, Norwalk and New Milford hospitals. “We already show that screening for colon cancer saves lives.”
Gruss, who works at Wilton Primary and Specialty Care, said the number of new cases for those between the ages of 40 and 50 is increasing at a faster rate than those older than 50, though the numbers are still not as high as the latter group.
“For a few years we’ve been seeing colon cancer in younger and younger patients,” said Dr. Shahzad Zafar, a colorectal surgeon at Stamford Hospital. “So, the focus shifted to what we can do to increase the screening for those people and really benefit them. Because up until now the screening recommendations targeted individuals 50 years or older, which means we could end up missing some patients.”
Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States, according to the cancer society, which estimates more than 97,000 new cases of colon cancer and more than 43,000 new cases of rectal cancer will be diagnosed this year. Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related death in men and women in the U.S., and ACS estimates 2018 will bring more than 50,000 such deaths this year.
In Connecticut alone, the cancer society estimates that there will be 1,520 new colorectal cancer cases in 2018, and 460 deaths.
Zafar said colon cancer takes time to develop and typically follows numerous warning signs, making it one that could easily be prevented if patients get screened regularly.
“It is a totally preventable cancer,” he said.
“Colon cancer develops from an adenoma, which is a benign polyp that over the course of a number of years becomes the carcinoma, which is the cancer,” he added. “So, there is time to detect the polyps and remove them before they become cancer. In essence, you can prevent colon cancer if people get the colonoscopy on time and follow through with continued screening.”
The ACS decision came after “looking closely at evidence that new cases of colorectal cancer are occurring at an increasing rate among younger adults,” the organization said in a statement. “A beginning screening at the age of 45 for adults of average risk will result in more lives saved from colorectal cancer.” At-risk patients were already being screened at earlier ages.
The most obvious sign that something is wrong, Zafar said, is bloody stool or rectal bleeding.
“One of the most important things for people to know is if you see blood when you go to the bathroom, or have blood coming from your rectum, that is a very ominous sign that you should not ignore, regardless of your age,” he said. “That is a sign that you need to go and see a doctor and get worked up.”
Gruss said the earlier screenings will help her find the polyps sooner.
“My aim isn’t to diagnose colon cancer,” she said. “I’m looking to find the polyps before they turn into cancer.”
The big question though is whether insurance companies will support the earlier guidelines to allow people to get screened. Gruss said many insurance companies use the guidelines set by the U.S. Preventative Task Force to determine coverage, and that recommendation is still at 50.
As of now, Connecticut mandates all colonoscopies are covered by insurance companies for individuals 50 and older. Gruss said she plans to bring the younger recommendation up at the next legislative session.