Cancer screening, part 2: Now, not enough

While much of the recent media surrounding cancer screening has focused on new research and guidelines suggesting that less frequent screening may be beneficial, a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that too many Americans are not getting screened at all.

According to the CDC s latest Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the number of Americans who were screened for colon, breast, and cervical cancer in 2010 were below the target levels set for that year. While the goal for breast cancer screening was 81 percent, only 72 percent of women were screened, and only 83 percent of women obtained cervical cancer screening, as opposed to the target level of 93 percent. Colon cancer screening missed the mark as well, since only 59 percent, compared to the goal of 70.5 percent, of U.S. adults were actually examined. There were additional disparities based on patients ethnicities, with screening rates particularly low for Asian and Hispanic Americans.

Current recommendations, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, are that women aged 50 to 74 should have a mammogram every two years to check for breast cancer, and women aged 21 to 65 should have a Pap test for cervical cancer at least once every three years. Additionally, both men and women between 50 and 75 should get colorectal cancer screening via an annual fecal occult blood test, a sigmoidoscopy every five years combined with fecal occult bood testing every three years, or a colonoscopy every 10 years.

While it is discouraging that the number of people being screened for these cancers does not rise to the level of CDC targets, says ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross, the good news is that the rate of screening for colorectal cancer is slowly improving. He notes that, even though recent guidelines have adjusted the recommended frequency of these screenings, they are still extremely important. We especially need to increase the rates of colorectal cancer screening. Unlike with breast cancer screening, there is a much smaller risk of false positives that lead to harmful and expensive overtreatment, he says.