Colorectal cancer is the second deadliest cancer in the United States. Only lung cancer kills more people.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the American Cancer Society reports that, “Colorectal cancer death rates have been decreasing since around 1980 in men and 1950 in women. Since 1998, rates overall have decreased by 2.8% per year in men and by 2.6% per year in women.”
But researchers at the American Association for Cancer Research have recently identified three geographic areas of the US where the death rate from colorectal cancer is much higher than in the rest of the country:
- The Lower Mississippi Delta
- West central Appalachia
- A group of counties in eastern Virginia and North Carolina.
The colon cancer death rate in the lower Mississippi Delta is 40 percent higher than the rest of the country. The death rate in western central Appalachia is 18 percent higher, and the death rate in the eastern Virginia/North Carolina counties is 9 percent higher,
Poverty, a lack of health insurance and low levels of education and health literacy may be the factors leading to higher death rates from colorectal cancer in those three areas. But that doesn’t explain why only those three rural areas are affected.
U.S. cancer deaths in 2014
1. Lung Cancer 159,260 deaths in 2014
2. Colorectal Cancer 50,310 deaths in 2014
3. Breast Cancer 40,430 deaths in 2014
4. Pancreatic Cancer 39,590 deaths in 2014
5. Prostate Cancer 29,480 deaths in 2014
About 1 in 20 people in the U.S. will get colorectal cancer. The risk factors for getting colorectal cancer are: age, a history of colon cancer in your family, drinking more than 3 alcoholic drinks a day, smoking tobacco, and being obese.
The American Cancer Society suggests that beginning at age 50, everyone should use one of these screening tests for colorectal cancer:
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 years
- Colonoscopy every 10 years
- Double-contrast barium enema every 5 years
- CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy) every 5 years
If colorectal cancer is found early enough, the odds of survival are very good.
The most common test is a colonoscopy — a simple test that allows the doctor (an internist) to look at the inner lining of your large intestine (rectum and colon) in order to find ulcers, colon polyps, tumors, and areas of inflammation or bleeding. The doctor uses a thin, flexible tube called a colonoscope to look at your colon.
The death rate from colorectal cancer has dropped because more and more people are following the American Cancer Society’s guidelines and getting tested.
But a lot of people don’t get those tests. More than a third of Americans age 50 and over aren’t up-to-date on their screening, and consequently less than half of colon cancers are found early.