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Colon cancer screening? But I’m healthy.

Colon cancer screening can save your life. Hear from Dr. Brooks, an expert from the American Cancer Society, about when to get screened and what the screening options are.


By Durado Brooks, M.D., M.P.H.
August 11, 2017

     


I’ve known a lot of patients who put off their recommended cancer screenings, especially colon cancer screening. For some, it’s the fear of the preparation and the test itself. For others, they’re healthy and don’t have symptoms. It’s hard to face something as scary as cancer. But, I’ve made it my life’s work to raise awareness about how preventive screenings save lives.

I see, almost every day, the positive outcome screening can have. Sometimes it’s giving patients peace of mind that they’re healthy, or catching something early that can be treated quickly. It’s often the person who was convinced they didn’t need screening, but did so after relentless prodding from a spouse or other family member, who learns they have a growth that may have progressed to cancer if it hadn’t been found.

You want your family members, like your parents and grandparents, to be as healthy as possible for as long as possible. That’s why I encourage you to tell those you love to get screened if they’re in the recommended screening group.

Here are some common questions I get about colon cancer screening:

Why get screened?

Colon cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. when you combine men and women. It’s also a cancer that can be prevented or detected at an early stage. Most colon cancers occur in men and women who are 50 or older, so we recommend colon cancer screening starting at age 50 for everyone (or sooner for those with a family history or other risks).

African American and Native American populations are at a higher risk for colon cancer and should start getting screened at age 45.

What do screenings do?

Screening is how we look for cancer or pre-cancer in people who have no symptoms of the disease. Regular screening can often prevent colon cancer by finding and removing growths (“polyps”)before they become cancer. Screening can also find colon cancer early, when it is most likely to be curable. When found at an early stage, before it’s spread, the five-year relative survival rate is about 90 percent. But less than half of colorectal cancers are found at this early stage.

What are my screening options?

Most colon cancer screening in the U.S. is done with either a colonoscopy or a stool test like the FIT test. There are a few screening options. Most are covered 100 percent by insurance, even if you haven’t met your deductible. Check with your insurance company to see what they’ll cover.

HealthPartners members: Check your coverage here

What test is right for me or my family?

A doctor will consider all of the options and recommend the right test. The at home stool tests are an attractive option to some people because they’re private and there’s no special diet to prepare. That’s good for patients who let the fear of a more invasive test stop them from getting screened. A good doctor will explain all of the options.

My family has no history. Why get screened?

Most people who get colon cancer have no family history of the disease. But if you have a grandparent, parent, brother, sister or child who has colon cancer, then you may have a higher chance of getting it. People with a family history should start getting tested before age 50. I can’t stress enough how important testing is if you or your parents are in this category. If anyone in your family has a history of colon cancer make sure you let your doctor know.

Remember – screening guidelines only relate to people who have no signs or symptoms. If you have symptoms, like blood in your stool, changes in your bowel habits or abdominal pain, these may be signs of colon cancer and you should see your doctor right away.

How often should I get screened?

For colonoscopy, it’s once every 10 years starting at age 50, unless your doctor recommends more often. The FIT test is an annual test starting at age 50.

If you have a positive FIT test, then your doctor will recommend you have a colonoscopy.

Don’t wait until symptoms show to get screened. Many have the disease and don’t even know it. It’s always better to get tested before symptoms show up.

Stay on top of your health

As your parents get older, they’ll have more health concerns. Their doctor has a lot to talk to you about and may not get around to discussing colon cancer screening. Encourage your parents to bring it up at their regular checkups with their doctor.

Make an appointment with your doctor to talk about screening options

You owe it to yourself and those you love to make sure you’re all following the recommended screening guidelines. 

To learn more about prevention and early detection of colon cancer you can call the American Cancer Society at 800-227-2345 or visit our website.

Durado Brooks, M.D., M.P.H.

Durado Brooks, M.D., M.P.H., managing director, cancer control intervention for the American Cancer Society, has spent much of his career working to enhance the role of prevention in primary care and to improve care for medically underserved populations. In his role with the American Cancer Society he is involved in creating and implementing strategies to improve the prevention and early detection of cancer, and to assist those who are diagnosed with the disease. He is also actively engaged in ACS initiatives designed to eliminate disparities in cancer prevention, detection and outcomes. An Ohio native, Dr. Brooks received his medical degree from Wright State University School of Medicine in Dayton, Ohio, where he completed his internal medicine residency and served as chief resident. He subsequently served as fellow in General Internal Medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, and earned a master's degree in Public Health from the Harvard School of Public Health.

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