We’re deep into Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, but you may have been tuning out the messages.
It’s understandable. Nobody likes to think about the possibility of having cancer. But there’s good reason to tune back in. If you’re anxious about the thought of a colonoscopy, you have alternatives. Doctors now have several options to screen patients for colorectal cancer.
Colorectal Cancer Screening Options
Here’s what you should know about your colon cancer screening options:
- Colonoscopy. This procedure is considered the gold standard for diagnosing colon cancer. After taking a laxative to clear the bowels, you’ll be given a mild sedative before a doctor inserts a scope into your colon. The scope is fitted with a small video camera so your doctor can look for signs of cancer or precancerous growths called polyps. Polyps can also be removed during a colonoscopy. For healthy people at low risk of colorectal cancer, we recommend a colonoscopy every 10 years.
- Cologuard®. This test analyzes stool samples to detect DNA markers associated with colorectal cancer. Unlike a colonoscopy, this test isn’t a procedure at all — so it doesn’t require sedation or cleaning the bowels. It’s not a surprise, then, that it’s more appealing for many patients. But the test can be expensive (though more and more insurance companies are covering it), and if you receive a positive test result, you’ll still need to follow up with a colonoscopy. Cologuard is a great choice for people at low risk of colorectal cancer. If you choose Cologuard screening, we recommend getting tested every 3 years.
- Virtual colonoscopy. This noninvasive test X-rays the colon and rectum to look for possible signs of cancer. If the result is positive, your doctor will likely recommend a colonoscopy for further testing. Several years ago, this “virtual colonoscopy” was becoming popular as an alternative to colonoscopy. Unfortunately, researchers haven’t found enough evidence that it saves lives. Cologuard is usually a better noninvasive option, if your insurance covers it.
- Fecal occult blood tests. This test looks for traces of blood in the stool. If you have a positive fecal occult blood test, a colonoscopy will likely be the next step. This test isn’t as definitive as other screening tests at identifying colorectal cancer. That’s why we don’t usually recommend it unless other tests aren’t covered by a patient’s insurance.
What test is best? It depends. Talk to your doctor about the best option for you. It’s an important step for your health and your peace of mind.
Colorectal Cancer Screening Advice
Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in the United States, for both men and women. But it doesn’t always cause symptoms, especially at earlier stages. When it does, they are often vague (such as upset stomach, cramps or bloating). Luckily, screening tests do a great job of catching cases of colorectal cancer, with or without symptoms.
For people with an average risk of colorectal cancer, we recommend regular screenings begin at age 50 and continue until 75.
But some factors increase your risk of being diagnosed with colorectal cancer. These include:
- Family history of colon cancer
- Inflammatory bowel disease, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease
- Inherited conditions associated with colorectal cancer, including familial adenomatous polyposis (more commonly known as FAP) or Lynch syndrome
- A history of having radiation to the abdomen to treat a previous cancer
If you fall into one of those categories, your doctor can help you decide if screening before age 50 is a good idea.