Dramatic progress has been made in the prevention, detection and treatment of colorectal cancer. The five-year survival rate for early-stage colorectal cancer today stands at 90 percent, and the overall death rate for colorectal cancer in the U.S. has fallen by 40 percent since the 1970s.
Early detection has been key to this success: widespread use of endoscopic screening, including colonoscopy and flexible sigmoidoscopy, enables discovery of colorectal cancers and precancers at their earliest stages when they are most treatable and curable. These approaches have helped to save thousands of lives since they were introduced in the 1970s.
Advances in surgery, coupled with effective adjuvant chemotherapy to prevent cancer from returning, have also been critical to this success. Now, for the first time, even some patients with advanced (metastatic) colorectal cancer can be cured with the right combinations of chemotherapy to shrink tumors, followed by surgery and additional chemotherapy to help the cancer stay in remission.
Colorectal cancer has also served as a proving ground for molecularly targeted therapies. Use of these treatments to attack tumors with a specific genetic profile can add many months to the lives of some patients with incurable disease. Researchers hope that by developing additional targeted drugs, and by combining them in new ways, they can continue to extend lives and cure more patients.