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Colorectal cancer (CRC) screening is a vital preventative method to detect and remove a polyp and to diagnose cancer before it advances to an incurable stage. CRC screening options include endoscopy and stool-based testing. Now a new study that surveyed unscreened individuals at average risk for CRC has found that people have a preference for the stool-based screening option. 

The third most diagnosed cancer in the U.S., over 5 million people worldwide currently live with CRC. One method of CRC screening is a colonoscopy, which detects swollen, abnormal tissues, polyps, or cancer in the large intestine (colon) and rectum. Another form of CRC screening is the fecal immunochemical test (FIT). FIT is one of the most widely used CRC screening methods globally and is an affordable screening tool for studying large populations. FIT detects hidden blood in stool, a potential early sign of cancer, and it has an overall 95% diagnostic accuracy for CRC. 

It is estimated that 106,180 new colon cancer cases and 44,850 new rectal cancer cases will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2022. With the screening age for CRC for average-risk adults lowered to 45 years, we need a better understanding of what the various age groups may prefer as a screening option to improve compliance and screening rates. 

The new study that was published has found that individuals in the 40-49 age group and those ≥50 years prioritized test modality above effectiveness when choosing their screening test. The findings of this study demonstrate that:

  • Both 40-49-years-old and ≥50-year-old age groups preferred FIT-fecal DNA every three years
  • The second preferred test for both age groups was a colon video capsule, or capsule endoscopy, every five years 
  • Regarding only the USPSTF tier 1 tests, both age groups preferred an annual FIT over a colonoscopy every ten years
    • 68.9% of 40-49-year-olds and 77.4% of ≥50-year-old participants preferred an annual FIT

These results conflict with current CRC screening approaches in the U.S., where colonoscopy is the screening test customarily used. Furthermore, these findings prompt the modification of current CRC screening guidelines and suggest that healthcare providers consider sequential-based screening procedures where FIT is offered before colonoscopy. The results, however, are consistent with a 2007 study, which supports the effectiveness of providing FIT before colonoscopy—the percentage of patients that were up-to-date with screening increased by almost 50% between 2000 and 2015 when they were offered direct-to-patient annual FIT outreach with colonoscopy. 

Scheduling delays and longer waiting times for colonoscopies have increased as millions of newly eligible individuals need a colonoscopy, all of which can strain resources and delay access and early screening for patients, especially for those at greater risk for CRC. Sequential approaches for CRC screening, such as those that offer FIT before colonoscopy, can help acknowledge and adjust to the increased need for screening and the lack of resources and help prioritize access to colonoscopy for those at greater risk for CRC.

 

Sahar Alam is a Colorectal Cancer Prevention Intern with the Colon Cancer Foundation.

Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to sharp declines in cancer screening rates. Screening tests were halted as national lockdowns began as healthcare centers needed to prioritize COVID-19 patients. A retrospective cohort study revealed that during the early days of the pandemic in 2020, fewer fecal immunochemical test (FIT) screenings and colonoscopies resulted in fewer patients being diagnosed with colorectal cancer (CRC) and advanced adenomas than in 2019. In April 2020, colonoscopy volumes were significantly lower than in April 2019, with a 26.9% decrease in colonoscopy volume. Overall, there was an 8.7% reduction in CRC cases diagnosed by colonoscopy in 2020. This has fueled concerns of a potential negative impact on cancer prevention and care.

The study mentioned above analyzed the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on CRC screening and diagnostic testing among 18-89 year-olds enrolled in the Kaiser Permanente Northern California health plan in 2019 and 2020. Researchers measured changes in the number of mailed, completed, and positive FITs; colonoscopies; and cases of colorectal neoplasia detected by colonoscopy. Findings show that when the pandemic-related stay-at-home orders were issued in March 2020, there was a dramatic decline in FIT mailings. Similarly, in South Australia, retrospective analysis on surveillance colonoscopy in patients at high risk for CRC revealed that there was a 51.1% decrease in surveillance colonoscopy procedures from April–June 2019 compared to April–June 2020, the period where the region faced the most difficulty due to COVID-19. 

The reduction in CRC screenings during the pandemic suggests that patients may have been reluctant or unable to undergo screening. Furthermore, challenges with pre-pandemic CRC screening were amplified during the pandemic. For instance, stress levels in the general population increased and those who may have skipped screening due to work obligations were more likely to miss setting up a colonoscopy during the pandemic. Fear of contracting COVID-19 may have been another barrier. Another issue that was evident during the pandemic was healthcare inequities that disproportionately impacted medically-underserved communities. 

Given the massive delays in traditional methods of screening, healthcare centers had to develop alternative approaches to ensure continued screening after the initial wave of COVID-19, such as the increased adoption of telehealth services. For CRC screening, the use of FIT was arguably the best alternative to colonoscopy procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic. This remote option gives patients a lot of flexibility with their screening, as they are able to take the test safely in the comfort of their own homes. 

These findings may help inform the development of strategies for CRC screening and diagnostic testing during future national emergencies. 

 

Kitty Chiu is a Colorectal Cancer Prevention Intern with the Colon Cancer Foundation. 

Colorectal cancer (CRC) is the third most common cancer diagnosis and the second most common cause of cancer death globally. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be 106,180 new colon cancer cases and 44,850 new rectal cancer cases in the United States in 2022. Early detection and consistent screening reduce CRC incidence and mortality. A recent randomized controlled trial that analyzed the feasibility, adherence, yield, and related costs of various screening modalities found that a risk-adapted approach is feasible and cost-favorable for population-based screening. 

Current guidelines recommend standardized screening plans for specific age groups, with colonoscopy recommended every 10 years and a fecal immunochemical test (FIT) between 1-3 years. Implementation of risk-stratified screening can potentially allow for more frequent screening and earlier detection of CRC at a population level. This would especially be beneficial for individuals who are at higher risk of CRC. Additionally, risk-stratified screening can help health practitioners detect and introduce plans for CRC treatment at earlier stages.

The National Health Service Breast Screening Programme (NHSBSP) recently investigated the potential benefits, costs, and effectiveness of risk-stratified breast cancer screening with BC-Predict, a platform that collects self-reported risk factor information for breast cancer, analyzes the self-reported information, and invites high-risk or moderate-risk women to a conversation about prevention and early detection options. BC-Predict was found to have the potential to reduce breast cancer mortality due to early screening. It also reduced screening in women who are at lower risk, minimizing the number of false positive test results in lower-risk women. The results from this analysis are pertinent to risk-stratified screening for CRC and support the implementation of a risk-adapted approach in CRC screening.

What Did the Study Find?

More than 19,000 participants in the TARGET-C trial conducted in six cities in China were placed into one of the screening arms in a 1:2:2 ratio: 

  • One-time colonoscopy (n=3,883)
  • Annual fecal immunochemical test (FIT) (n=7,793)
  • Annual risk-adapted screening (n=7,697).

The detection rate of advanced colorectal neoplasia, CRC, and advanced precancerous lesions were the main outcomes that were monitored. The follow-up to trace the rate of advanced colorectal neoplasia for all participants was conducted over a 3-year study period. 

Over three screening rounds, the participation rates for colonoscopy, FIT, and risk-adapted screening arms were 42.4%, 99.3%, and 89.2%, respectively. The costs to the for detecting one advanced neoplasm, presented as both Chinese Yuan (CNY) and US dollar, using a package payment format were:

  • CNY6,928 ($1,004) for one-time colonoscopy
  • CNY5,821 ($844) for annual fecal immunochemical test (FIT)
  • CNY6,694 ($970) for annual risk-adapted screening.

These findings underscore the value of a risk-adapted approach for CRC screening for feasibility and cost-effectiveness, as well as for allowing for more frequent screening and earlier detection of CRC for individuals with a high or moderate risk for CRC.

 

Sahar Alam is a Colorectal Cancer Prevention Intern with the Colon Cancer Foundation.