People Not Getting Colon Cancer Screening

This year, 135,000 Americans will learn they have colon cancer. Of them, 56,000 people will die of the disease.

Many of them will die unnecessarily, a new government study says.

In fact, a third of them could have been saved had they taken the right medical tests, according to Centers of Disease Control research.

Instead, many are literally “embarrassed to death” because they are reluctant to take these rather intimate tests, such as the fecal occult blood test and the colonoscopy, researchers say.

The fecal occult blood test detects hidden blood in the stool, which may be an indicator of internal bleeding from a lesion or a polyp. Screening by this test can reduce the death rate by as much as 30 percent, the CDC says.

A colonoscopy involves inserting a flexible tube with a camera inside the rectum to find suspicious lesions inside the intestine. Instruments in the tube also can remove suspicious growths for biopsy. Removal of precancerous polyps or growths can decrease the onset of cancer by 75 percent to 90 percent, according to the CDC.

Colon cancer starts in the form of polyps. It takes a while for the polyp to change into cancer, and it’s during that time that the CDC believes it can help save lives.

Less Than Half Screened Who Should Be

But less than half American men and women over the age of 50 are getting a screening test for colon cancer.

“Rates of use of colorectal screening tests are still very low,” says Laura Seeff, lead author of the CDC report. “Very low.”

“We want people to know they shouldn’t wait for symptoms if they’re over 50, they should talk to their doctor about getting screened because screening saves lives,” says Cynthia Jorgensen, a behavioral scientist with the CDC.

CDC scientists believe that a third of the people who die of colon cancer could be saved if they could overcome feelings of embarrassment about colon cancer tests.

Risk Increases With Age

Colorectal cancer is most common in people age 50 and older and the risk increases with age, with 93 percent of new cases diagnosed in people who are 50 or older, according to the CDC.

A family history of colorectal cancer or colorectal polyps increases the risk of developing colorectal cancer. Certain diseases of the intestines, including inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease), can increase the risk for colorectal cancer.

“We can prevent the disease which I think many people are unaware of,” says Seeff. “We can certainly detect it early when treatment is much more effective. So if people start using these screening tests regularly we would have a huge impact.”

ABCNEWS’ Christi Myers of KTRK in Houston and’s Robin Eisner contributed to this report.