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For Colon Cancer Patients, Military Health System Shows Better Results

Image of Graphic image of a colon with polyps. Colon cancer occurs in the colon, which comprises the large intestine, where abnormal growths called polyps can sometimes form and potentially turn into cancer. Screening involves tests that find polyps so they can be removed before turning into cancer. (Photo: NIH)

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Colon cancer patients in the Military Health System had significantly higher survival rates compared to patients in the general population, according to a study the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) in Bethesda, Maryland conducted.

The researchers found that MHS patients with colon cancer had an 18% lower risk of death, compared to patients in the general population. The study included patients aged 18 or older from different racial groups and a median follow-up time of 56 months for MHS patients and 49 months for patients in the general population.

The improved survival benefit tended to be larger among black patients than white patients, according to the study.

The MHS provides health care with little or no financial barriers to its beneficiaries. The study's authors said the results suggest the importance of reducing financial barriers to improve survival for colon cancer.

"In addition to survival, we also looked at tumor stage at diagnosis to assess whether there were differences in tumor stage, which could partially account for the difference in survival," said Dr. Craig Shriver, director of the Murtha Cancer Center Research Program at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland and one of the study's authors.

In the MHS population, the study showed patients were 10% less likely to be diagnosed with a later phase of the disease, compared to the general population.

"This study shows that the survival outcomes of colon cancer were improved in the MHS compared to the general population," Shriver said. "It's important to look into this data because disparities in access to medical care influence the survival outcome of cancer patients."

According to the study, colorectal cancer is the third most diagnosed cancer and third leading cause of cancer death in the United States.

The good news is the rate of new colorectal cancer cases has been decreasing steadily since the early 2000s in older adults, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The American Cancer Society says this is due to higher screening rates and changing lifestyle-related risk factors. These include being overweight, smoking, not being physically active, an unhealthy diet, and alcohol consumption.

Screening is key to disease prevention and early detection. Regular screenings and health checkups can help doctors diagnose earlier, provide timely and effective treatment when it is most effective, and encourage positive behaviors to raise awareness and lower risk.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the symptoms of colorectal cancer include:

  • A change in bowel habits.
  • Blood in or on your stool (bowel movement).
  • Diarrhea, constipation, or feeling that the bowel does not empty all the way.
  • Abdominal pain, aches, or cramps that don't go away.
  • Losing weight and you don't know why.

USU's colon cancer study was supported by the John P. Murtha Cancer Center Research Program at USU, under a cooperative agreement with the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine and by the intramural research program of the National Cancer Institute.

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Last Updated: September 10, 2021

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