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Mar 29, 2023
Regular screening helps older adults survive colon cancer
3d illustration of colon cancer with a tumor highlighted

While colorectal cancer is the second most common cause of cancer deaths in the United States – claiming more than 52,000 lives in 2022 – deaths from colorectal cancer have been dropping among men and women for several decades.

This is due to a number of factors, including increased and early preventive screening, lifestyle and diet changes, and improved treatment options. You can help reduce your risk of colon cancer by making healthy choices, such as eating a balanced diet lower in red meat and fat, staying active, not smoking, and not drinking alcohol in excess.

When colorectal polyps are found early, they can be removed before they develop into invasive cancer. When colon cancer is found early, it’s easier to treat. There are now more than 1.5 million colorectal cancer survivors in the United States.

However, the number of preventive screenings greatly decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic. That is understandable, but they need to resume, said Dr. J.B. Sobel, chief medical officer with Cigna Healthcare’s Medicare business, which serves hundreds of thousands of older adults.

While the number of older adults with colorectal cancer has been falling steadily, younger people are being diagnosed at increasing numbers. As a result, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has lowered the recommended age of first screening for colorectal cancer from 50 to 45 for those at average risk.

“Many times, colorectal cancer presents with no symptoms, which is why screening is so critical to prevention,” Sobel said. “If you can’t go to the doctor’s office, you might be able to take a home screening test and mail it away for results.”

Common symptoms of colorectal cancer

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists the following common symptoms of colon cancer:

  • Change in bowel habits or stool shape
  • Blood in or on the stool
  • Diarrhea, constipation, or feeling the need to have a bowel movement that is not relieved by having one
  • Persistent abdominal pain, aches, or cramps
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Reduced appetite

If you have any of these symptoms, Dr. Sobel stresses the need to reach out to your doctor immediately.

How to be screened for colorectal cancer

A number of colorectal screening tests are available, including at-home stool sample tests. Most people are familiar with colonoscopies, during which the patient is under sedation while a long scope is used to look at the inside of the lower bowel (called the colon). Patients should talk with their doctors about the most appropriate screening for them.

The costs of most tests are generally covered in full by Medicare, but there can be limitations regarding test frequency. Additionally, there are usually separate costs for removal of any polyps found during a routine colonoscopy.

To help prevent colon cancer among customers who are most at risk, Cigna Healthcare mails a test called a fecal immunochemical test (FIT) to the homes of certain Medicare Advantage customers at no extra cost. Since the first tests were provided in 2017, tens of thousands of Cigna Healthcare customers have taken the screening. About 10% of those tests required follow up with a physician.

“We’ve heard from customers who say they believe their screening kit saved their life,” Sobel said. “That’s really the message here. Colorectal cancer is very curable, if you commit to catching it early through appropriate screening.”

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