Preventing Breast, Cervical, and Colorectal Cancer Deaths

Assessing the Impact of Increased Screening

Krishna P. Sharma, PhD; Scott D. Grosse, PhD; Michael V. Maciosek, PhD; Djenaba Joseph, MD, MPH; Kakoli Roy, PhD; Lisa C. Richardson, MD, MPH; Harold Jaffe, MD


Prev Chronic Dis. 2020;17(10):e123 

In This Article


The estimated deaths from breast cancer, cervical cancer, and CRC prevented under different scenarios, comparing the impact of incremental screening rates, may be useful for setting goals and making resource allocation decisions on prevention. For example, one of the goals of Healthy People 2020, the US government's 10-year national health objectives, is to reduce female breast and cervical cancer mortality by 10% and CRC mortality by 15%.[15] Our estimates suggest that large numbers of deaths from cancer could be prevented through increased use of evidence-based screenings. The greatest impact could be realized for increased CRC screening. The magnitude of potential impact of universal CRC screening is attributed to the fact that CRC screening has a current rate that is lower than breast and cervical cancer screening, includes both men and women, and has a larger proportionate decrease in mortality associated with it. Although we recognize that 100% screening is not an achievable goal, we included it as a target to illustrate the maximum benefit that could be achieved by increased screening.

The Community Preventive Services Task Force (CPSTF) recommends evidence-based strategies, such as patient and provider reminders, to increase screening rates for all 3 cancers.[16–18] CDC's CRCCP aims to increase screening rates among priority populations through implementation of these strategies in health system clinic settings. The NBCCEDP is a long-standing CDC initiative that screened over 1.4 million low-income, uninsured and underinsured women over the 5 years ending in 2017 alone.[19] These public health programs, along with other state and local efforts, are critical to increasing cancer screening. For example, early results of CRCCP suggested a 4.4 percentage-point annual increase in screening rates among the participating clinics.[5] By the second and third year of the CRCCP, the rate increased by 8.3 and 10.1 percentage points, respectively. An increase of 10.1 percentage points implied more than 82,000 additional CRC screenings under CRCCP.[20]

Increasing cancer screening rates would require additional resources for the delivery of clinical services, as well as strategies to promote uptake of screening in population groups with lower use of screening. Previous studies that examined the cost of public provision of programs to increase screening found that such programs include not only cost of screening services but also substantial cost of administering and promoting the programs.[21,22] The incremental costs associated with additional screenings may be offset by early detection of cancer or precancerous abnormalities through routine screening. In particular, use of colonoscopy for CRC screening or as follow-up to abnormal fecal screening can significantly reduce the onset of CRC through removal of precancerous polyps in addition to allowing early detection of tumors. Consequently, economic analyses have concluded that screening for CRC might be cost-saving to health care systems, with the magnitude of cost savings greater for colonoscopy-based screening.[23,24] A CPSTF systematic review found that multicomponent interventions to promote CRC might also be cost-saving, a finding that was based on a small study in a disadvantaged population in south Texas and a modeling study from South Korea.[25] However, those analyses did not factor in competing risks or future medical costs, although taking those into account may still render CRC screening to be considered cost-effective even if not cost-saving.[26]

Our estimates of the relative contributions of recommended screenings align with previous estimates, although methods differ.[27] In particular, the results of Farley et al reflect annual impact in a US cross-section, while our estimates reflect the lifetimes of a US birth cohort. These different methods could produce the same number of life-years at risk of cancer and the same results if, among other things, the successive birth cohorts represented in the cross-section were all the same size. However, because the older cohorts in a cross-section came from smaller, pre-1946 birth cohorts, annual estimates tend to be smaller than lifetime estimates from a birth cohort. Our estimate of 68% (35,530) CRC deaths prevented, associated with increasing screening from 68% to 100%, is higher than the Meester et al estimate[28] of 58% CRC deaths prevented in 2020, even with an increase in screening rate from 60% to 100%.


The current rates of screening used in this study were based on self-reported BRFSS survey data, but actual rates could be substantially less. Past studies have suggested that self-reports of screening overestimated screening rates by as much as 15 to 25 percentage points.[29,30] We did not account for the potential contribution from the use of human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination to reduce incidence of cervical cancer; neither did we include HPV testing for cervical cancer screening in women aged 30 or older. The estimates for CRC deaths prevented were based on 3 screening strategies: FOBT alone, flexible sigmoidoscopy combined with FOBT, and colonoscopy alone; other currently available or recommended strategies or test methods (eg, fecal immunochemical test, fecal DNA, Cologuard) were not included. Furthermore, our approach assumes proportional effects of screening and does not account for population heterogeneity in screening frequencies and risk of death. Also, the validity of our approach to extrapolate outside the observed range of data is not known, although this is often the only approach available.


Increasing screening for CRC and breast and cervical cancers could prevent a substantial number of deaths attributed to these cancers. Organized screening approaches that leverage partnerships between public health and primary health care to implement evidence-based strategies could be used to reduce the prevalence of these cancers.