Less than one-third of Americans get properly tested for deadly colorectal cancer, mostly because doctors don't push the exams and patients often are too embarrassed to talk about them, says a new report to Congress.
"It is curable if it's detected early, and far too few Americans get tested early," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., who asked federal health officials to define barriers to the colorectal cancer screening.The report, released Monday, also said women especially are missing out, because of what Slaughter calls the myth that colorectal cancer is a man's disease.
"This is an equal-opportunity cancer," stressed Slaughter, who as head of a congressional task force on women's health is pushing for a national education campaign, aimed at doctors and patients, to boost testing.
Cancer of the colon and rectum is expected to strike 131,600 Americans this year and kill 56,500. National statistics show it strikes men and women about equally and is the No. 3 cancer killer for each group.
While relatives of cancer patients or people with colon growths, called polyps, are more prone to the disease, the biggest risk is simply getting older. So people are supposed to be tested regularly starting at age 50.
But just 26 percent of Americans ages 50 or older have been tested for blood in stool samples within the past three years, and only 29 percent had an actual colon exam within the past five years, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's report, citing the latest available data.
Men were more likely than women to be tested, 35 percent compared with 24 percent, and minorities also were significantly undertested, the report said.
U.S. colorectal screening guidelines, issued last year, say simply taking those fecal blood tests every year after age 50 - with easy, $5 at-home test kits - could cut colorectal cancer deaths by a third. People also can choose a test that threads a small tube into the lower colon to hunt cancer every five years, or a full colonoscopy every 10 years that can detect even tiny polyps that years later could turn cancerous.
Most insurance pays for some colorectal screening; Medicare coverage began in January.
The CDC, American Cancer Society and other expert groups have begun planning national testing campaigns, focusing on doctors, said Dr. Robert Smith of the cancer society.
"It doesn't matter how unpleasant the test is, a physician's recommendation is very persuasive," said Smith, noting that too often patients see doctors only for acute illnesses, not checkups, meaning doctors have fewer occasions to offer cancer screening.