A lot of people put off their recommended cancer screenings – especially colon cancer screenings like colonoscopies. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 25% of adults have not been screened as recommended.
For some, fear of colonoscopy prep and the test itself keep them from scheduling their screening. Others are healthy and don’t have any colon cancer symptoms, so they don’t think they need to be screened. But it’s important to know that colorectal cancers – cancers of the colon and rectum – are the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths among men and women in the United States.
You want to be as healthy as possible for as long as possible. And you want that for your partner, parents and grandparents, as well as close friends and loved ones. That’s why we encourage you to get screened and tell those you love to get screened, too.
We know you might have questions about when colon cancer screenings should start, how often you should have them, if a colonoscopy is the only screening option, and more. To help you find out what you need to know, below are answers to some of the most common questions we get about colon cancer screenings.
What is a colon cancer screening?
While colorectal cancer is second only to lung cancer in cancer-related deaths in the U.S., it’s also a cancer that can be prevented or detected at an early stage. That’s where screenings come in.
Screenings are how we look for cancer or precancer in people who have no symptoms of the disease. This is important because many people with colon or rectal cancers don’t experience symptoms in the early stages of the disease.
Why are early screenings for colon cancer important?
When found at an early stage (before it has spread), the five-year relative survival rate for colorectal cancers is about 90%, according to the American Cancer Society. But less than half of colorectal cancers are found at this early stage. That’s why screenings such as colonoscopies and stool tests are recommended at specific times – they save lives.
What is the colon cancer screening age? When do you start?
At what age should you get screened for colon cancer? That’s a big question on many people’s minds.
The latest guidance from the United States Preventive Services Task Force and the American Cancer Society recommends colon cancer screenings begin at age 45 for both men and women – which is down from age 50 in past years. If you have certain colon cancer risk factors, your doctor may recommend screening even earlier.
What are the risk factors for colon cancer?
Colon cancer risk factors include:
- Family history – If you have a family history of colon cancer, your risk of getting the disease can be higher. So, if you have a grandparent, parent, sibling or child who’s had the disease, tell your primary care doctor right away. This is especially true if you have more than one family member with the disease. If you have a personal history of colon cancer, your risk of another bout of the disease is higher, too.
- What if you don’t have a family history of colon cancer? While family history can raise your risk level, most people diagnosed with colon cancer have no family history of the disease. That’s because your individual risk can be impacted by several factors. And that’s also why it’s so important to follow colon cancer screening guidelines.
- Race – African American and Native American populations are at a higher risk for developing colon cancer than people of other races.
- Genes – While just a small percentage of colon cancers are connected to inherited genes, certain gene mutations that are passed down can significantly increase your risk of colon cancer.
- Lifestyle factors – Smoking, drinking alcohol, poor diet with not enough colon-healthy foods and lack of regular exercise can also increase your risk for colon cancer.
How often should you be screened for colon cancer?
How often you should be screened for colon and rectal cancers largely depends on two factors: Your individual risk factors and the type of screening test that is chosen.
For example, if you’re 45 or older, at average risk for developing colon cancer and opt for a stool test, you’ll submit a sample once a year until your doctor recommends otherwise. If you opt for a colonoscopy, every 10 years is typically recommended.
On the other hand, if you’re at a higher risk, your doctor may strongly recommend a yearly stool test and/or that you get a colonoscopy every three years.
When do you stop screening for colon cancer?
The decision of when to stop screening for colon cancer can depend on your health and your preferences. Screening recommendations are based on the possible benefits and risks associated with available screening tests.
Generally, regular colon cancer screenings are recommended until age 75. Between ages 76 and 85, you should talk with your doctor about the pros and cons of screenings, and make your decision based on your personal preferences and health. After 85, screenings aren’t recommended as the potential risks of screenings can outweigh the potential benefits.
Are colon cancer screenings covered by insurance?
Most screenings are 100% covered by insurance, even if you haven’t met your deductible. Since the recommended colon cancer screening age was recently lowered, make sure to check with your insurance provider about coverage changes.
Colon cancer screening options
The most common colon cancer screening tool is colonoscopy. Fecal immunochemical tests – or FIT test for short – are another popular screening option.
What is a colonoscopy? A colonoscopy is a procedure that lets your doctor check the lining of your colon for anything unusual such as inflamed or swollen tissue, and polyps. Polyps are small growths of extra tissue, and some polyps can become cancerous. A colonoscopy is what most people think of when it comes to colon cancer screenings.
A huge advantage of a colonoscopy is that your doctor can both detect and remove precancerous lesions during the procedure, helping to prevent cancer in the future.
Outside of screenings, colonoscopies can diagnose conditions like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, too.
Fecal immunochemical test (FIT)
What is a FIT test? It’s an annual stool test that screens for colon cancer. The test looks for the presence of hidden blood in your stool, which can be a sign of colon cancer. A FIT test is comfortable, convenient and done right at home.
Should you get a colonoscopy or a FIT test?
The important thing is that you get screened. Depending on your age, health, personal preferences and risk factors, your doctor can help you decide how to test for colon cancer. The best colon cancer screening test is a completed test – which means more people are opting for a FIT test.
But it’s important to know that choosing a FIT test doesn’t mean you’ll never need a colonoscopy. If your FIT test comes back positive, your doctor will recommend a colonoscopy to investigate further.
Blood test for colon cancer
While blood tests can’t determine if you have colon cancer, it can provide your doctor with clues about your overall health that could help them diagnose, or rule out, colon cancer. They will look at things like your complete blood count, liver enzymes and presence/absence of chemicals that are sometimes produced by colon cancers, like carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA).
Now is always the time to cover your colon
Colon cancer screenings save lives. So, don’t delay the conversation around this important preventive care. If you’ve never been screened or have questions about your options, plan to talk with your primary care doctor at your next preventive checkup.
If you’re ready to schedule a colonoscopy, you can make an appointment online for most of our locations. If you’re interested in a FIT test, you can choose a location and call for more information.
And remember, colon cancer screening guidelines only relate to people who have no signs or symptoms of colon or rectal cancer.
Pay attention to how you feel and your bathroom habits. Your poop says a lot about your health. So if you have symptoms like blood in your stool, changes in your bowel habits or abdominal pain, don’t ignore them. They may be signs of cancer or another health condition, so see a doctor right away.