With chronic health conditions on the rise, more Americans are at risk for colorectal cancer, according to a recent Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) Health of America study.

A key component of the study’s findings relates to the health of millennials, who were born between 1981 and 1996. BCBS previously examined millennial health and found chronic health conditions, such as hypertension and Type 2 diabetes, impact millennials at a higher rate than previous generations.

Chronic conditions increase a person’s risk for other health problems, such as cancer. For millennials and others with a higher risk, Dr. Deb Esser, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska’s (BCBSNE) chief medical officer, said now is the time to make changes to better their health.

“You can’t do anything about your family history as a risk factor,” Esser said, “but you can watch your weight and proactively work with your doctor to ensure you receive the recommended health screenings for your age group.”

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends people who are age 50 and older or have an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) undergo colorectal cancer screening. However, as the study found, many individuals delay their screenings, which could result in poorer health outcomes.

“The earlier you discover a cancer, the more treatable it is,” Esser said. “If you can remove a cancerous polyp before it has really taken root and grown and spread, the better your cure rate will be and the less treatment you will need.”

Colorectal cancer prevalence rates increase by 50% from age 50-55, indicating that delaying screening by just a few years can have an impact, according to the study.

Patients have three options for colorectal cancer screening:

  • Colonoscopy, which examines the walls of a patient’s colon to check for cancer.
  • Fecal immunochemical tests (FIT), where a patient collects a stool sample at home and mails it to a lab for testing. The lab then checks for cancer DNA within the stool.
  • Fecal occult blood tests, which checks for blood in a stool sample.

The study found that amongst those surveyed, the majority, or 65.2%, had a colonoscopy.

The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association surveyed 1,000 commercially insured Americans to gain a better understanding of why patients choose to delay testing. The survey found attitudinal reasons as the main barrier for those over 50 while those ages 18-49 with IBD cited knowledge barriers.

To help combat these roadblocks, Esser said physicians should stress to their patients the importance of being screened at the right age, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Patients want to be there for their families and need to take colorectal cancer screening seriously,” Esser said. “It spreads rapidly and is a killer. Get screened at the right age and make sure you’re here for your family.”

Over the last few years, BCBSNE has seen an increase in eligible, commercially insured members undergoing preventive colorectal cancer screening. In fact, in 2017, 49.6% were screened. That number increased to 56.5% in 2019.

Members seeing BCBSNE’s Total Care providers were 23% more likely than other members to be screened for colorectal cancer in 2019. Total Care recognizes doctors who go above and beyond to enhance their patients’ care through preventive services, better management of chronic conditions and reduced costs for care.

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