Recognizing a gap in cancer screening programmes

A woman-centric approach to cervical cancer and bowel cancer screening may encourage more women aged 50–64 to receive these screens.

A technician works among a fleet of desktop genomic sequencing machines at the Cancer Genomics Research Laboratory, part of the National Cancer Institute's Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics (DCEG). Image credit: National Cancer Institute (CC0)

Routine screenings for cervical and colorectal cancers save lives by detecting cancers at an early stage when they are more treatable and more likley to cure. Most cancer screening in the United States is focused on single cancer screening programs, often held at community health fairs, pop-up screening vans and other settings, without coordination with the individuals’ primary care doctors.

This is problematic because the primary care physician cannot counsel if the results are abnormal and advise when the next routine screen is appropriate. This leads to gaps in women not being informed that they are due for routine screening and gaps to act on any abnormal screening results. This is especially problematic for women aged 50 to 64, who are less likely to screen for either cancer alone compared to other age groups.

Currently, 86% of women in the United States are up to date with cervical cancer screening, and 64% are up to date with colorectal cancer screening. However, it is not clear how many women in this age group receive both screens, compared to a single screen or neither screen.

Harper et al. analyzed data from over 40,000 women aged 50 to 64, collected in a United States health survey in 2018. This study revealed that only 59% of the women reported being up to date with cervical and colorectal cancer screenings. Compared to women who did not screen at all, women completing both screens were more educated, had higher incomes, and were more likely to have other chronic conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, depression and other cancers.

These findings reveal that the number of women aged 50 to 64 in the United States, who are up to date with both cancer screenings, is still well below national targets. Harper et al. propose that shifting towards a women-centric focus, with primary care physicians or health care systems responsible for managing screening efforts, could decrease cancer incidence and mortality. In future, self-test kits for both cancers should help encourage more women to have both screens in a comfortable environment. This change in focus will also allow primary care physicians to notify women at appropriate intervals to attend routine screening and immediate follow-ups in the case of abnormal results.