Millions Skip Test for Colon Cancer

Nearly half the people who need potentially lifesaving checks for the nation’s second-highest cause of cancer deaths - colorectal cancer - miss them, despite years of public efforts to make colon screening as widespread as tests for breast and prostate cancer. The dreaded colonoscopy may get the most attention but a cheap, at-home stool test works, too - and when California health care provider Kaiser Permanente started mailing those test kits to patients due for a colon check, its screening rates jumped well above the national average.

Now specialists are looking to Kaiser and the Veterans Affairs health system, which also stresses stool tests, for clues to what might encourage more people to get screened. Colorectal cancer can be prevented, not just treated, if only early signs of trouble are spotted in time.

“By overselling and overpromising colonoscopies, we’ve put up barriers for people’’ to get any type of screening, said Dr. T.R. Levin, Kaiser Permanente’s colorectal cancer screening chief in northern California.

Everyone is supposed to get screened for colorectal cancer starting at age 50, but US data show just 55 percent do. That’s better than a decade ago when screening rates hovered below 30 percent, and new cases and deaths have dropped as a result.

But about 150,000 people are diagnosed with colorectal cancer each year, and nearly 50,000 die. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says screening could eliminate many new cases because regular colon checks can remove precancerous growths called polyps before the cancer has time to form.