Updated phase III results from the BEACON study have found that encorafenib with cetuximab can lead to promising survival outcomes among patients with advanced colorectal cancer (CRC) who had received previous lines of treatment.

The third most common cancer and the third most common cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S., CRC occurs when there is development of mutations in oncogenes, tumor suppressor genes, and genes that aid in DNA repair. Depending on the site of the mutation, CRC can be classified as familial, inherited, or sporadic. Chromosomal instability (CIN), microsatellite instability (MSI), and CpG island methylator phenotype (CIMP) are pathogenic mechanisms through which CRC can develop. These mutations, changes in the chromosomes, and translocations can affect various signaling pathways (Wnt, TP53, TGF-β, and MAPK/PI3K) and genes such as c-MYC, KRAS, BRAF, SMAD2, and SMAD4. Oftentimes, mutations in these genes can serve as important predictive markers in the context of patient outcomes.

In addition to CRC, mutations in BRAF have been found to be responsible for various other cancers such as melanoma, thyroid, small-cell lung, and hairy cell leukemia. BRAF encodes for  the B-RAF serine/threonine kinase protein, which is a part of the RAS/RAF/MEK/ERK pathway. Most of the mutations that take place in the BRAF gene lead to a V600E substitution, which often leads to a poor prognosis in patients. The BRAFV600E mutation initiates activation of the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) signaling pathway, which causes the tumor cells to rapidly divide. It has been estimated that approximately 10% of patients with metastatic CRC have a mutation in BRAF.

In the past, treating metastatic CRC with BRAFV600E mutations has led to low response rates, partly due to incomplete inhibition of the MAPK signaling. Recently, the combination of a BRAF (encorafenib) and EGFR (cetuximab) inhibitor has shown promising results compared to BRAF inhibitor monotherapy. The BEACON CRC study is a randomized, open-label, phase III trial that enrolled 665 patients and compared triple combination therapy; encorafenib (300 mg x1 a day) plus binimetinib (45 mg 2x a day) plus cetuximab (400 mg/m2 x1 a week) versus double combination therapy; encorafenib plus cetuximab versus cetuximab plus irinotecan or FOLFIRI. Of the total 665 patients, 224 received triple therapy, 220 received double therapy, and 221 received the control therapy.

The objective of the BEACON trial was to detect the overall survival in relation to the triple combination therapy/double combination therapy as compared to the control. It was determined that triple/double therapy led to a median overall survival of 9.3 months, while the control group showed an overall survival of 5.9 months. This indicates that both triple/double therapy improved the overall survival rate and can therefore be used as the new standard of care in patients with metastatic CRC with BRFV600E mutations.

 

 

In February 2021, Brett Walker, M.D., became the 10th awardee of the Thomas K. Weber Colorectal Cancer Research Scholar Award, awarded by the Colon Cancer Foundation in partnership with the Society of Surgical Oncology.

The award was renamed in 2020 after Thomas K. Weber, M.D. (1954-2019), founder and former president of the Colon Cancer Foundation. Dr. Weber devoted his life to increasing colorectal cancer awareness, detection, and prevention, and his dedication to “a world without colon cancer” lies at the heart of the Colon Cancer Foundation. Thus, the award was renamed to keep his legacy alive while celebrating members of the community that display excellence in translational research pertaining to the molecular biology of colorectal cancer.

This year, Dr. Walker received the award for his abstract submission on circulating hybrid cells (CHCs) as a potential biomarker for treatment response in gastrointestinal cancers. CHCs are a type of hybrid cell created by the fusion of an immune cell and a tumor cell. Research pertaining to CHCs is novel as the primary focus of previous studies on cancer cell biomarkers has been on circulating tumor cells (CTCs), cells that bud off from a primary tumor and circulate in the bloodstream. 

Though CHCs also disseminate outward from a primary tumor and circulate in the peripheral blood, the difference between the two lies in their names. Whereas CTCs only express cytokeratin, a tumor protein, CHCs express both cytokeratin and CD45, an immune cell marker. It is postulated that CHCs have both immune and tumor cell markers in order to successfully evade the immune system to form new tumors. 

“CHCs have this opportunity to escape out of the primary tumor and migrate to different areas and potentially seed new metastatic tumors,” said Dr. Walker in an email correspondence with the Colon Cancer Foundation. 

According to Dr. Walker, CHCs have the potential to be a better evaluative marker of treatment response and disease progression compared to CTCs because there are more of them circulating in the bloodstream. 

Dr. Walker’s research itself indicates the effectiveness of CHCs as biomarkers. According to The ASCO’s Post description of his research, CHCs “successfully discriminated pathologic complete response from non–pathologic complete response in both rectal and esophageal cancers.”

Additionally, Dr. Walker mentioned that CHCs can provide information on the actual tumor itself. 

“By collecting CHCs, we can actually gain information on the tumor, specifically what proteins they express and their genetic makeup including mutations, which could potentially help guide targetable treatments for patients,” said Dr. Walker.  

Though more studies need to be conducted into CHCs, the implications of the research conducted by Dr. Walker’s laboratory are immense. If indeed CHC levels can be used as an effective biomarker, then patients with colorectal cancer can opt for non-invasive blood tests to track disease and treatment progression, as opposed to undergoing traditionally invasive imaging techniques and endoscopies. This in turn improves patients’ quality of life by avoiding intensive procedures that can cause stress and fear. 

 

Dr. Walker expressed excitement over CHCs as a biomarker and hopes that his research will inspire others in the field to conduct their own studies. 

 

“I think that there’s a huge opportunity here for us to really affect how we both detect and manage colon cancer. And so I really think this is an awesome opportunity to bring attention to hybrid cells and hopefully expand the number of researchers in this field.”

 

The American Cancer Society’s 2021 Cancer Facts and Figures includes staggering statistics about colorectal cancer (CRC) in the United States:

  • It is the third most common type of cancer diagnosed in men and women
  • It is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men and women
  • CRC incidence rates are increasing in adults younger than 50
  • CRC mortality rates are increasing in adults younger than 55
  • Black people have the highest CRC incidence and mortality rates among all ethnic groups

These shocking figures are why Fight CRC, a patient advocacy group with a mission to “cure colorectal cancer,” is working with members of Congress to provide funding for CRC research.

Fight CRC calls for the allocation of $20 million for a CRC research program within the Department of Defense (DoD). Congressional champions of the group are leading a letter to the House Appropriations Committee in support of this effort. According to the letter, CRC is the only cancer among the top five cancer killers without its own program within the DoD’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP). 

Fight CRC wants to change that. They believe it is past time for CRC to be spotlighted, and they have “no plans of slowing down or stopping until they reach their goal: a cure.” At the Colon Cancer Foundation, we wholeheartedly stand by this mission and we will continue to work towards, in the words of founder Dr. Thomas K. Weber, “a world without colon cancer.”  

Imagine a world in which CRC is not one of the most common types of cancers. Imagine a world in which CRC does not cause deaths anymore. Now, imagine that you don’t have to imagine any of this: you can make this world a reality by clicking on Fight CRC’s action alert and urging your members of Congress to sign the letter to create a distinct program for CRC research. Share it with your friends, family, and colleagues so that together, we can all create a world without CRC.

 

In 1999, the Prevent Cancer Foundation designated March as the National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. The foundation partnered with the American Digestive Health Foundation and the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable to raise awareness and advocate for policy change for the third most common type of cancer in the United States. On November 19, 1999, an official declaration came through from the United States Senate and the House of Representatives. 

With approximately 100,000 new cases of colorectal cancer (CRC) every year, March is an important month to cast a spotlight on the value of preventative measures such as screening. The American Cancer Society estimates there will be 149,500 new cases of CRC and 52,980 deaths in 2021. In December 1995, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommended that adults with an average risk of CRC should be screened between the ages of 50-75 years. Due to increasing evidence over the last few decades, in December 2020 the USPSTF released draft recommendations saying screening should start at the age of 45 years.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a drastic reduction in the number of colonoscopies in 2020: about a 90% drop compared to previous years. Approximately 1.7 million Americans missed their annual screening test in 2020, and 18,800 CRC diagnoses were either delayed or missed altogether. 

In recognition of the month of March, the Colon Cancer Foundation (CCF) had several activities planned, including the #GiveACrap Challenge. The Challenge encouraged individuals to sign up to receive a free Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT), and the chance to receive a special limited-edition beer. People also had the option of making a donation to the foundation to receive the test kit and the beer. Other activities included the CCF Challenge which is a 45-mile walk-run and a concert celebrating the culmination of a week full of activities.

In his proclamation for National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, President Joseph Biden urged Americans to call attention to CRC risk factors and increase annual screening practices. He emphasized that March is the perfect opportunity to improve public understanding of CRC and to educate individuals about the age for proper screening. He reiterated that if caught early, CRC is highly treatable and curable. “Because of the Affordable Care Act, most health insurance plans must cover a set of preventive services with no out-of-pocket cost. This includes colorectal cancer screening in adults aged 50 and older,” President Biden said.

Fight Colorectal Cancer and the Colon Cancer Coalition urged business leaders and landmarks to go blue to spread CRC awareness. As of March 9, 2021, businesses, healthcare systems, and landmarks in 21 states had confirmed their status to “Go Blue” in honor of CRC Awareness Month. Moreover, the Colon Cancer Coalition hosted a ‘Get Your Rear in Gear’ event on March 21, 2021, in-person and virtually, as a 5K untimed run/walk-in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

Every year in March, various events take place all throughout the U.S. with the hope of spreading awareness and advocating for CRC. It is essential to spread the word about CRC and emphasize the importance of regular screening to prevent, manage, and treat CRC.

 

March 2021 brought 21 updated recommendations and guidelines from the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG) regarding colorectal cancer (CRC) screening.

While the American Cancer Society recommends CRC screening for those aged 45 and up, the ACG recommends regular CRC screening for those aged 50-75, which follows the current recommendations set by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and the Multi-Speciality Task Force. For those aged 76 and beyond, the ACG recommends that the decision to screen for CRC be dependent on the health status and lifestyle of each individual, as the risks of CRC screening can outweigh the benefits depending on the individual’s situation. 

The recommendation to start screening at age 50 is only for those at average risk for CRC. For those who have a family history of CRC or advanced polyps and are therefore at a two-fold increased CRC risk, the ACG recommends screening starting at the age of 40 or 10 years before the youngest affected relative—whichever comes first. 

The various CRC screening options include:

  • Stool-based tests like fecal immunochemical test (FIT) and multitarget stool DNA (mtsDNA)
  • Blood-based tests like Septin 9
  • Direct visualization like colonoscopy, flexible sigmoidoscopy, CT colonography, and colon capsule

The ACG recommends that colonoscopy and FIT should be the primary CRC screening methods. While advising against the Septin 9 blood test due to its low CRC detection sensitivity, the ACG does recommend the other screening methods outlined above for individuals who do not want to undergo a colonoscopy or FIT. It is important to note that all non-colonoscopy screening methods require a follow-up colonoscopy in the case of a positive result.  

In terms of chemopreventive methods, multiple long term studies have indicated that aspirin can reduce CRC incidence and mortality. However, these studies showed mixed results and did not break down the results by individual CRC screening history, so the ACG recommends against the usage of aspirin as a substitute for traditional CRC screening methods. 

Recommendations for Improving the Quality of Colonoscopy Screening 

Of all the screening methods, a direct visualization test like the colonoscopy is the most commonly performed procedure in the U.S. However, the colonoscopy does come with a main drawback: the results of the test are dependent upon the colonoscopist. The Adenoma Detection Rate (ADR), defined by “the fraction of persons aged 50+ who have one or more adenomas detected and removed,” is a good indicator of colonoscopy performance quality. Several studies have identified a link between colonoscopists with higher ADR rates and a reduction in CRC in their patients. Therefore, the ACG recommends remedial training for colonoscopists with an ADR of <25%.

The ACG further recommends that colonoscopists spend at least six minutes inspecting the mucosa before the scope is withdrawn from the anus, as a withdrawal time of six minutes or more increased the detection of neoplastic lesions and reduced the risk of post-colonoscopy CRC (PCCRC). An additional indicator of colonoscopy quality is the cecal intubation rate (CIR), which is defined as “the passage of the colonoscope tip into the cecal caput.” It is recommended that colonoscopists achieve a CIR of at least 95%, as studies have shown that a low CIR is associated with an increased risk of PCCRC.

Recommendations for Increasing Awareness About CRC Screening

As CRC remains the third leading cause of cancer in the U.S. among men and women, screening outreach is essential to increase participation in CRC screening. Studies have found that various screening outreach methods like brochures, invitations, reminders, patient navigation, patient reminders, clinical interventions, and clinical reminders were associated with increased CRC screening rates. Additionally, having primary care providers involved in screening outreach methods increased patient participation in CRC screenings. Therefore, the ACG recommends all the above to increase screening participation. 

To improve adherence to follow-up colonoscopies after positive non-colonoscopy results, the ACG recommends mail and phone reminders, patient navigation, and provider interventions.

The Colon Cancer Foundation implemented various campaigns this March to increase CRC screening participation in honor of National Colon Cancer Awareness Month. One of the most notable was the #GiveaCrapChallenge, where CCF partnered with Squatty Potty and DuClaw Brewing Company to screen 100 people for colon cancer. Participants traded a stool sample via a FIT kit for a limited edition, six-pack brew sample from DuClaw. These types of innovative screening outreach methods can increase participation in CRC screening, allowing for earlier detection of CRC.

Early detection can significantly reduce the incidence and mortality of CRC. Though there are currently no randomized clinical trials that compare the various CRC screening intervals in terms of the number of life-years gained, the Cancer Intervention and Surveillance Modeling Network, through various studies, recommends the following:

  • Annual FIT
  • Colonoscopy every 10 years
  • mtsDNA test every 3 years
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5-10 years
  • CT colonography every 5 years
  • Colon capsule every 5 years

 

With activities in full swing across the U.S. during National Colorectal Awareness month in March, the Colon Cancer Foundation (CCF) spoke to Whitney Jones, MD, founder of the Colon Cancer Prevention Project (CCPP, Louisville, Kentucky), about the foundation’s history, their success with flipping colorectal cancer (CRC) screening rates in the state, and their vision for the future.

Back in 2003, Dr. Jones, a gastrointestinal specialist, was shocked when he encountered several individuals who should have been screened for CRC, presenting with advanced colon cancer in his clinic. Intrigued by this, he found out that Kentucky ranked 49th for CRC screening rates and led the nation in incidence and mortality. It was then that he decided to make changes in the space and started the foundation the same year.

Partnerships to Help Move the Needle on Preventive Screening

While early years were focused on developing informational flyers and attending health fairs, by 2008 CCPP’s attention shifted to influencing policy changes, such as making sure CRC screening received preventive care coverage. They simultaneously developed a screening program for the state’s uninsured populations under the oversight of an advisory committee (healthcare providers, policy experts, and legislators) that continues to meet on a monthly basis even today.

In 2015, CCPP began promoting lead-time messaging and on-time screening, with a particular emphasis on high-risk and younger populations. “We called out, not the guidelines, but in fact our strategy for implementing our guidelines,” he said, which culminated in a paper on establishing a standard process for timely messaging for CRC screening for both average-risk and high-risk individuals, with an overall goal of changing mindsets. “If we have to reach disparate populations, we have to start earlier, message more frequently, and offer more choices,” Dr. Jones said.

CRC screening compliance is mainly driven by primary care providers (PCPs) and health care systems. “Gastroenterologists are the catchers, and the PCPs and health systems are the pitchers,” he said. “We can no longer trust opportunistic screening as in the past. We need to aim for a more systematic, longitudinal, benchmarked system for evidence-based and guideline-driven screening.”

This, he added, will require participation from payers, Medicaid, and the Department of Insurance to instill policies such as coverage for a colonoscopy following a positive FIT test, or genetic testing for those who meet criteria. Additionally, partnering with organizations that understand the local landscape—such as the Cancer Prevention Programs at a safety-net university-based hospital—provides vital on-the-grounds insight. Dr. Jones’ recommendation is for each state to create a statute for an advisory committee or a technical advisory committee that includes lawmakers and insurance companies, to help develop, clarify, and implement CRC policy.

To spread the success of their state-based screening programs, CCPP is partnering with FightCRC to replicate Kentucky’s success in other states—especially in the context of stakeholder engagement. “The key was really in engaging all of our partners that we have now and asking them, ‘What power can you bring from your organization to really advance something?’” He strongly believes that having a CRC-focused organization lead the charge can have a huge impact on moving the needle and getting things done for the community.

Family Health History for On-Time Screening

We all know that disparate platforms make it difficult for sharing information across electronic health records (EHRs). Add to that the time constraints faced by practitioners and gathering accurate information about a person’s family health history (FHH) could be really challenging. Dr. Jones’ vision rises a step above that—using an AI-based system that will gather FHH, critical to Hereditary Cancer Risk Assessment, prior to a patient’s appointment and integrate it within their EHR, compare it to existing guidelines, and provide the physician with a recommendation that can guide the conversation during the patient visit. “Logistics and informatics will play a significant role in improving our struggles with on-time screening,” Dr. Jones added.

45 IS The New 50: Now What?

While the debate over when to start screening average-risk adults is over (see USPSTF draft recommendation), onboarding 20-21 million people across the country in the 45-49 age group is going to be a challenge, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Catching-up will require a dramatic increase in the utilization of stool-based testing. “While we cannot conduct colonoscopy in all the new population, we can definitely send them stool-based testing kits. That’s what health systems should focus on,” Dr. Jones said.

In Kentucky, CCPP has been preparing hospitals, health systems, insurance companies, and large group payers since mid-2020 to adopt these guidelines as soon as they are finalized. The focus is on communicating with folks in their late 30s to inform them about symptoms, screening the high-risk population at age 40 or sooner with colonoscopy, identifying candidates for whom genetic testing is appropriate and for average risk individuals, and screening with either stool-based tests or colonoscopy in a shared decision-making model.

“Forty-five should be the finish line for starting risk-based CRC screening communication, not the starting point,” Dr. Jones said.

 

Colorectal cancer (CRC) is the third most common cancer in terms of incidence and mortality in both males and females in the U.S. Screening remains the best method to detect the disease early and can reduce the incidence of advanced cancers. Depending on which guidance is followed, average-risk adults should start screening at 45 or 50 years, However, there is limited information on the ideal age to stop CRC screening. 

The US Preventive Services Task Forces (USPSTF) recommends CRC screening is beneficial only until age 75. In their study published in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Cenin et al discuss the age at which men and women should stop screening based on their comorbidities and prior screening results. The authors used a CRC microstimulation model known as Microsimulation Screening Analysis (MISCAN)-colon, which works by answering questions in relation to an individual’s screening and age. The model assesses individuals based on an approach of benefit versus risk using a 76-year-old individual with an exemplary prior screening history as a measure by which all other cases are compared. But, the MISCAN model did not take into account an individual’s prior adherence to screening. 

Comparatively, Lansdorp-Vogelaar et al determined that colorectal cancer (CRC) screening with the fecal immunochemical testing (FIT) was reasonable up until 76 years of age, but only up to 66 years of age in individuals who had underlying comorbidities. Furthermore, Tian et al have emphasized the importance of the family history of CRC, primarily because it contributes towards CRC risk and when to stop screening. 

Based on the many studies conducted, it has been apparent that prior screening history holds far more importance than the number of underlying comorbidities in individuals. Additionally, the age to stop screening differs drastically between men and women. In women with similar comorbidities as men, screening tests were stopped 12-20 years prior depending on screening history, and as early as 24 years if a colonoscopy was done. 

Cenin et al’s study is based on FIT, which is not as relevant in countries where colonoscopy is used as a primary screening test. Individuals who opt for a colonoscopy have longer protection, as opposed to those who opt for FIT. CRC screening can stop at 74 years if the individual had a colonoscopy, irrespective of comorbidities. Therefore, in the U.S., the USPSTF recommends that screening should be stopped at 75 years of age because the primary screening test used is a colonoscopy. According to Pilonis et al, a negative colonoscopy has the ability to provide protection for up to 17.4 years, thereby reducing mortality by 81%. 

Cenin et al’s study also emphasizes the importance of attaining a full screening history and past medical history in order to determine what is the best age to stop CRC screening.

 

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month—an observance of patients, survivors, caregivers, and advocates to educate their communities about the disease. It is also an opportune time to promote awareness about the importance of screening, prevention, and treatment.

The third most common cancer diagnosed in the US, colorectal cancer (CRC) is one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality worldwide. Although CRC incidence rates have declined in the U.S., disease burden remains high. About 19 million colonoscopies were done in the USA in 2017 and the number seems to be increasing primarily due to various screening programs. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force currently recommends average-risk adults to begin screening at the age of 50 years, while the American Cancer Society suggests starting earlier, at 45 years.

Screening tests can successfully recognize precancerous polyps and can help catch early-stage colon tumors. Numerous screening options are currently available and your doctor can help you choose the right test:

Stool-based tests: 

  • Guaiac Fecal occult blood test (gFOBT)
    • gFOBT analyzes the presence of blood in stool. The stool is put on guaiac saturated paper and if blood is present, a reaction occurs which causes the paper to turn blue.
    • Although this is a common screening test, it has a high incidence rate of false positives, which can occur if you have consumed red meat prior to testing
  • Fecal immunochemical test (FIT)
    • FIT analyzes the presence of blood in stool but at a higher accuracy as compared to gFOBT. It identifies blood via antibodies found on the surface of red blood cells.
    • FIT does not have high false positive rates after patients consume red meat.
    • However, FIT may miss tumors that do not bleed at all and the test has to be refrigerated in order to perform accurately.
  • Stool DNA test (FIT-DNA test)
    • FIT-DNA is similar to FIT but is a multi-target test that has the ability to identify small amounts of blood in stool as well as cells that have been shed in the stool.

Blood-based tests:

  • Septin 9 is a blood-based test to screen for CRC.

Structural Tests:

  • Flexible Sigmoidoscopy (FS)
    • Outpatient procedure
    • Patients are told to avoid food/drinks from midnight the night before
    • No sedation required
    • The time commitment required for a FS is 3-4 hours compared to a colonoscopy, which requires 48 hours
  • Colonoscopy
    • Gold Standard
    • Outpatient procedure in which the patients are under sedation. A tool is inserted to visualize any abnormalities and/or polyps. A device is inserted alongside the tool to remove tissue for examinations/biopsies.
    • A few downsides to this screening test are:
      • Invasiveness of the procedure
      • Advance bowel preparation with dietary restrictions
    • Risk of tears and bleeds
  • CT Colonography (Virtual Colonoscopy)
    • Minimally-invasive test to visualize the entire colon
    • High sensitivity to polyps and CRC detection
    • Alternative in patients who refuse or are unable to undergo a colonoscopy procedure

Screening for CRC should be offered to those older than 50 years as well those who have a family history of CRC and/or predisposing conditions. Patients should discuss their choice of screening test with their doctor, depending on their situation and preferences. For example, screening tests such as FIT and FS are cost-effective, yet decrease the risk of CRC.

Early detection of CRC can help improve both response to treatment and survival!

 

Colorectal cancer (CRC) is the leading gastrointestinal neoplasia, which has historically been known to primarily affect individuals over 50 years of age, and screening is currently recommended for those 50 and older. This might soon change to 45 years and older. While CRC incidence has been decreasing among individuals older than 55 years, young-onset CRC has shown an opposite trend. From 2000 to 2017, the incidence rates of young adults with CRC has increased, particularly among those aged 40-49 years. Evidence suggests a discrepancy among racial and ethnic minorities, markedly amidst those who are of non-Hispanic and African American descent. 

About 20% of hereditary colon cancer syndromes are prevalent in young adults with CRC, which makes accessibility to genetic testing of utmost importance to reduce future development of the disease. Despite the need for overall accessibility, ethnic and racial groups are disparately referred to genetic counseling services.

A study conducted at UT Southwestern Medical Center and Parkland Health and Hospital System assessed 385 young adults between the ages of 18-49 years old with colorectal adenocarcinoma. The study measured the following outcomes: 

  • Are patients receiving a referral to get a genetic test?
  • Did the patient attend the genetic counseling appointment?Number of patients who were able to complete a genetic test

The study determined that 50% (n=225) of patients with young-onset CRC received a referral for genetic counseling services. Nonetheless, it was reported that a smaller portion of African American (n=49) patients were referred to receive genetic counseling as opposed to Hispanic patients (n=116). A downward trend was consistently noticed in African American patients from being referred to and attending appointments. Many patients report that they did not attend an appointment because they either missed it or never scheduled it. The most common reasons for not receiving the genetic test were  the inability to afford the cost, not receiving a referral to genetic counseling services, or the patient not returning their saliva sample.

Similar trends were reported among 1,647 African American women with breast cancer <50 years old who were enrolled in the Florida State Cancer Registry a year after their diagnosis. A population-based study was conducted which suggested that roughly 50% of these women were referred to and/or had access to genetic counseling services, even though the national guidelines specify that all patients should be referred. Likewise, several studies on ovarian cancers report similar disparities which need to be addressed.

All patients diagnosed with young-onset CRC should be referred to or have access to genetic counseling, regardless of their racial or ethnic background. Genetic counseling services can be of help in guiding and managing treatments among those diagnosed with CRC. 

 

Cancer is one of the most expensive conditions to treat worldwide. Financial stress and hardship after a cancer diagnosis is a well-documented fact in the U.S. Cancer patients spend more out-of-pocket for medical care and treatment than their counterparts without cancer, adding to their financial hardship. In addition to leaving patients and their families with debt and potential bankruptcy, these financial stressors also compound negative physical health effects.

Despite this, screening for financial hardships is not currently a part of clinical practice, and discussions around patient financial stressors occur infrequently in clinics. To address these challenges, screening for financial hardship after a diagnosis should be introduced to improve cancer patients’ quality of life during treatment and survivorship.

The Financial Burden of Cancer Patients and Survivors

 Dr. Robin Yabroff of the American Cancer Society said in an interview that cancer survivors experience consistent financial stress related to their diagnosis and post-treatment—40% of Americans cannot afford an unexpected expense over $400. In fact, over 50% of cancer survivors report being stressed about paying high medical bills or have delayed medical care due to high costs. Given that financial burden is strongly correlated with gap in insurance programs, unsurprisingly cancer survivors aged between 18-64 are more likely to experience financial stress relative to non-cancer survivors. With many new drugs and medical devices priced at $100,000 or higher, financial hardship has increased exponentially for cancer patients. Moreover, health insurers are constantly shifting care costs to patients by introducing higher deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance. To top all of this, a cancer diagnosis indefinitely and negatively impacts employment, resulting in loss of income and employment-sponsored health insurances in some cases.

Consequently, patients with cancer and their families experience ‘financial toxicity’, a term associated with hardships with paying medical expenses, psychological stress about affording to pay, and delaying or forgoing medical care due to costs. A recent study co-authored by Dr. Yabroff and Dr. Yousuf Zafar in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, highlights three main factors contributing to financial hardship as the rising cost of cancer treatments:

  • Increase in patient eligibility to treatment concurrent with expanding treatment options
  • Increase in duration of said treatment
  • Changing health-insurance design, which has shifted costs on patients

In addition, newer radiation and surgical oncology treatments are expensive. A simultaneous rise in the number of uninsured and underinsured patients and an increased prevalence of high-deductible and copayment health insurance options complicate matters.

Need for Financial Hardship Screening After Cancer Diagnoses

 Financial hardship negatively impacts a cancer patient’s mental health, physical willpower, and financial wellbeing as seen through increased debt, savings depletions, and filing for bankruptcy protection. This in turn can affect treatment adherence through forgone or delayed medical care, resulting in reduced survival. The higher the out-of-pocket costs for cancer therapeutics, the higher the risk for delayed treatment initiation or abandonment, risking early mortality and/or diminished quality of life.

A pilot study by Shankaran et al., revealed that introducing financial navigation programs could serve to lower anxiety surrounding the cost of medical expenditures, even if the actual cost remains the same. Training programs infinancial navigation provided by hospital staff can decrease and/or optimize patient out-of-pocket spending while reducing losses to health care facilities. However, a real-time online survey of oncology navigators found that 50% identified lack of resources as a barrier for getting financial assistance, highlighting the considerable room for improvement when connecting patients to the resources they need.

Treatment-related financial toxicity has been addressed by various professional outlets, patient-advocacy organizations, and the National Cancer Institute (NCI). For instance, the American Society of Clinical Oncologysuggests that cancer treatment providers should discuss treatment costs with their patients. Other organizations, including the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the President’s Cancer Panel recommend addressing the high costs of cancer care. While a large majority of NCI-designated cancer centers conduct some version of financial screening, only a small fraction actively follow-up on the effectiveness of the screen and connecting patients to financial resources. The collective research in this space highlights the need for implementing financial hardship screening and mitigation after cancer diagnoses to improve patients’ quality of life during and after treatment.

 

Conclusions

 The convergence of increasingly high-cost cancer care and treatment options, lack of health insurance or underinsurance, high out-of-pocket costs, and widening disparities in the ability to cover medical expenses or access quality medical care, provide a strong argument for the implementation of financial hardship screening for cancer patients and their loved ones along with access to suitable financial resources.

The Colon Cancer Foundation provides information on financial assistance programs that patients can access.