The Harold Leever Regional Cancer Center

Colon Cancer Screening

Excluding skin cancer, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States. Fortunately, death rates from colon cancer have been dropping for 20 years, primarily because of colon cancer screening, which allows doctors to find polyps early and remove them before they turn cancerous. If early-stage colon cancer is detected during a screening, it’s much easier to treat effectively.

Here’s what you need to know about colon cancer screening:

At what age do I need to start being screened for colon cancer? The American Cancer Society recommends regular screenings for both men and women starting at age 45 and continuing through the age of 75.

What if I am over 75? According to American Cancer Society guidelines, people between the ages of 75 and 85 who are in good health should make a decision about screening based on their preferences and past screening history. People over 85 should no longer be screened for colon cancer.

What are my options for colon cancer screening, and how often do I have to get it done? There are a number of different ways to get a screening for colon cancer. You can get a stool test, which looks for cancer in a provided stool sample, or have a visual exam. Here are your options for colon cancer screenings as well as how often you need to get them:

  • Highly sensitive fecal immunochemical test (FIT) every year
  • Highly sensitive guaiac-based fecal occult blood test (gFOBT) every year
  • Multi-targeted stool DNA test (MT-sDNA) every 3 years
  • Colonoscopy every 10 years
  • CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy) every 5 years
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy (FSIG) every 5 years

How do I decide which colon cancer screening test to use? All of the above options are effective at early diagnosis of colon cancer, so talk to your doctor and insurance provider to choose the one that is the best option for you.

Does colon cancer screening hurt? Not at all. Many tests are noninvasive, and a full colonoscopy, while it does require some preparation, it is a relatively simple, low-risk procedure that requires virtually no recovery time. It’s also performed under general anesthesia, so you won’t be awake for the procedure and you won’t feel a thing.

What happens if I get screened for colon cancer and the result is abnormal? If you use any test other than the colonoscopy and the result is abnormal, you should follow up with a colonoscopy.

Do I need to get screened differently if I have a higher risk of getting colon cancer? If you have an increased or high risk of colorectal cancer, you might need to start getting screened earlier than age 45, or you may need to be screened more frequently or get specific tests. You’ll need to consult your doctor about your specific history to decide what makes sense for you.

What are the risk factors for colon cancer? You have an increased risk of colon cancer if you have a strong family history or a personal history of colorectal cancer, certain types of polyps, inflammatory bowel disease, familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), Lynch syndrome (also known as hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer or HNPCC), or have received radiation treatments to the abdomen or pelvic area. You are also at a higher risk for colon cancer if you are overweight, physically inactive, a smoker, a heavy alcohol user, or have a diet high in red and processed meats.  

How do I get screened for colon cancer? Contact your primary care physician to discuss you risk factors and options, and to schedule a screening.