It is the 1974 AFC Championship game between Terry Bradshaw’s Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders. It’s the 4th quarter, and in front of just over 50,000 screaming fans, Bradshaw hurls a pass to Lynn Swann for a touchdown to seal the game and the AFC Championship for the Steelers 1. Bradshaw is lucky, not just for completing this pass or for his infamous football career, but for having his father’s life saved from Colorectal Cancer in 2008 (he later passed in 2014). Ken Stabler, another well-known NFL quarterback, died less than six months after being diagnosed with Stage 4 colorectal cancer in 2015.
Unfortunately, over 50,000 people a year in the U.S.2 – approximately the same amount of people who attended that memorable game in Oakland California are not as lucky as they succumb to this cancer. That’s 50,000 screaming fans that are silenced every year.
According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men and women in the U.S.2 Almost all of these are preventable deaths since colorectal cancer can be cured if it’s detected early. People who are diagnosed at early stages have over a 90 percent chance of a cure and surviving. In contrast, when colon cancer is detected at later stages, the chances for cure are much lower; less than 10 percent will be alive in five years after the diagnosis2 (see box 1).
- The 5-year relative survival rate for people with stage I colon cancer is about 92%.
- For people with stage IIA colon cancer, the 5-year relative survival rate is about 87%. For stage IIB cancer, the survival rate is about 65%.
- The 5-year relative survival rate for stage IIIA colon cancers is about 90%. For stage IIIB cancers the survival rate is about 72%, and for stage IIIC cancers the survival rate is about 53%.
- Colon cancers that have spread to other parts of the body are often harder to treat and tend to have a poorer outlook. Metastatic, or stage IV colon cancers, have a 5-year relative survival rate of about 12%. Still, there are often many treatment options available for people with this stage of cancer.
Colon cancer is a silent killer. There are usually no symptoms to rely on, and when symptoms are present, the cancer may be at an advanced stage. Warning signs that may indicate colon cancer include blood in the stools, narrower than normal stools, abdominal pain, change in bowel habits, anemia, and weight loss. The majority of the time, these symptoms are caused by other benign diseases such as inflammation in the colon, hemorrhoids, or irritable bowel syndrome4.
Fortunately, there are colorectal cancer screening technologies that can indicate the cancer during the stages when it can be cured, or avoided all together. Since colorectal cancer develops relatively slow (from the time the first abnormal cells start to grow into polyps, it can take about 10 to 15 years for them to develop into colorectal cancer), most polyps can be found with regular screening and removed before they have the chance to turn into cancer2.
Screening technologies for colorectal cancer can be divided into two main groups. The first are stool-based tests which check the stool for signs of cancer. The second are visual or structural exams which look at the structure of the colon and rectum for any abnormal areas. This is done with either a scope or with imaging tests2.
If you do your math right, you will get to the conclusion that in many countries most of the colorectal cancer cancers diagnosed are still not screen detected – thus most probably in later stages, more difficult and expensive to cure.
The single most important factor for screening technologies to work is for people to actually go and get screened. Although there has been progress over the last 15 years or so, there is still a long way to go in screening compliance. Far too many people avoid screening for a variety of reasons and thus place themselves in an unnecessary risk for obtaining this avoidable disease2. Ken Stabler’s partner for the last 16 years of his life said that “he would always cancel” the doctors appointments she made for him when he complained of consistent abdominal pain. Similarly, after finding precancerous growths in a colonoscopy screening, recently departed actor Luke Perry was an outspoken advocate for CRC screening. “People have embarrassments because of what it’s about. [But i]t’s a ridiculous reason to die,” he said.
Yes, Terry Bradshaw’s late father was a lucky man to have his colorectal cancer found and treated in 2008. Luke Perry was similarly fortunate to have his found and treated early. Ken Stabler was not. The rest of us do not need to depend on luck when it comes to colorectal cancer. We need to go get screened.
March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, another important reminder that Colorectal Cancer it is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Every year, about 140,000 Americans get colorectal cancer, and more than 50,000 people die from it. It is one of the more preventable cancer and there are good ways for screening it. If you know family members and friends that are at screening age and have not been screened yet – get them to do it!