Announcer: Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Many cases could be prevented or cured if found early enough. That is why it is important to get tested or screened for colorectal cancer.
At the National Cancer Institute's Division of Cancer Prevention, Dr. Ernie Hawk talks about the importance of screening for older people.
Dr. Ernie Hawk: About 70% of colon cancer occurs in people older than 60 years of age. In addition, colon polyps are very common in that population.
Announcer: Polyps are non-cancerous growths on the inner wall of the colon and rectum, seen here in simulated form in this oversize model of a human colon. Not all polyps turn into cancer, but nearly all colon cancers start out as polyps.
Dr. Ernie Hawk: Colon polyps are precursor lesions to colon cancers and if they can be found, identified, removed, we can decrease the risk of cancer. So, for all those reasons, colon cancer screening is important for the general population, but particularly for seniors.
Announcer: Dr. Hawk says that family history can play an important role in determining when a person should get screened.
Dr. Ernie Hawk: The appropriate age to start colon cancer screening is at 50 years of age in the United States population at the moment.
If, however, there's a family history of either pre-cancerous polyps or cancer in a first degree relative -- that is, a mom, dad, brother or sister -- it's recommended to start about a decade earlier, at age 40, or about the age of the first case in the family. That's an important distinction because it really changes the recommendations and says that we should start earlier, so that's something for people to remember because again, polyps are very common in the U.S. population. Up to 30 to 40% of individuals over 60 years of age have them and if, again, your mom, dad, brother, sister has them you need to start screening earlier.
Announcer: Colorectal cancer could be prevented if polyps that lead to the cancer are found and removed. If found in its early stages, colorectal cancer is up to 90% curable.
Dr. Ernie Hawk: Screening identifies not only cancers and therefore finds cancers earlier, which is always a good thing. In this disease, someone with stage I cancer has a 90% chance of surviving five years, whereas if it's found in its most advanced stage, stage IV, after it's left the colon and gone other places, the success rates with treatment are much worse.
So, screening helps to find cancer earlier, but in addition it allows you to find pre-cancerous polyps which can be removed and treated and thereby reducing the risk of cancer almost entirely.