Should I Be Screened for Colon Cancer?

February 19, 2024
Should I Be Screened for Colon Cancer?

This FAQ with an oncologist offers information about when and why you should have a colonoscopy or colon cancer screening test.

Q : Why is colon cancer screening important?

A: Colorectal cancer (cancer of the colon or rectum) is the third most diagnosed cancer in the United States. The American Cancer Society estimates that around 130,000 new cases of colorectal cancer (75,000 women) will be diagnosed this year. Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S.

Q: Who should be screened?

A: Generally everyone should begin screening at age 50. Higher risk groups, such as those with a family history of colorectal cancer, prior colon polyps or inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis) should start screening earlier. You should discuss your risks for colorectal cancer with your primary care provider.

Q: What are the options for colon cancer screening?

A: There are several tests available: colonoscopy, stool blood test, flexible sigmoidoscopy, barium enema, DNA stool test, and virtual colonoscopy. Colonoscopy is generally accepted as the best screening test.

Q: What does a colonoscopy include?

A: A colonoscope is a long flexible tube with a light and camera on the end that is inserted into the rectum and advanced throughout the entire colon. If any polyps (precancerous growths) are found, they can usually be removed at that time. Biopsies of tumors or any other abnormalities can be done as well. The procedure is done under moderate sedation and you will be kept comfortable. A thorough cleansing of the bowel must be done beforehand so that all of the colon surface can be clearly seen. This cleaning-out process is truthfully the worst part… most patients do very well with the procedure and have no recollection of it afterwards due to the sedation medications.

Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of colonoscopy as a screening test?

A: Colonoscopy is the most thorough method for evaluating the colon and rectum. Biopsies and polyp removal can be done right at that time, rather than needing to come back for further procedures or testing. Colonoscopy has been shown to have a very high detection rate for polyps and any other abnormalities – better than the other screening methods. One disadvantage is that it is more expensive than some other types of screening, although it is covered by most insurance plans. There is also a very small risk of bleeding or making a tear in the colon, but this is outweighed by advantages of preventing and detecting colon cancer.

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