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Stool tests as effective for colon cancer screening

WASHINGTON - Nearly half the people who need potentially lifesaving checks for the nation's No. 2 cancer killer, colorectal cancer, miss them, despite years of public efforts to make colon screening as widespread as tests for breast and prostate cancer.

But what if you opened your mailbox one day to find an at-home test kit, no doctor's appointment needed? The dreaded colonoscopy may get the most attention but a cheap, old-fashioned stool test works, too - and when California health care giant Kaiser Permanente started mailing those tests to patients due for a colon check, its screening rates jumped well above the national average.

Now specialists are looking to Kaiser and the Veterans Affairs health system, another program that stresses stool tests, for clues to what might encourage more people to get screened for a cancer that can be prevented if early signs of trouble are spotted in time.

"By overselling and overpromising colonoscopies, we've put up barriers for people" to get any type of screening, says Dr. T. R. Levin, Kaiser Permanente's colorectal cancer screening chief in northern California.

Everyone is supposed to get screened for colorectal cancer starting at age 50, but data show just 55 percent do.

But about 150,000 people still are diagnosed with colorectal cancer each year, and nearly 50,000 die. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says proper screening could eliminate many new cases, because regular colon checks can remove polyps, precancerous growths, before the cancer has time to form.

Colonoscopies, in which doctors use a long, flexible tube to visually inspect the colon, now account for 80 percent of all screening, a panel of specialists convened by the National Institutes of Health reported this month.

The $20 stool test is considered as effective if properly used once a year.

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