Make it happen: Get screened for colorectal cancer

Colorectal cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer-related death in the U.S. But it doesn’t have to be.

Screening tests for colorectal cancer save lives. And you have multiple screening tests to choose from, each with its own pros and cons.

Types of screening tests

Screenings for colorectal cancer can be divided into two main groups:

  • Stool-based tests.
  • Visual exams.

Stool-based tests look at your stool for possible signs of polyps—growths that sometimes turn cancerous—or for colorectal cancer itself. You collect samples of your stool that are then sent to a lab for analysis. These tests don’t require the kind of colon preparation needed for a colonoscopy. But you need to do them more often—sometimes every year.

Visual exams include a traditional colonoscopy and a virtual colonoscopy. (A third visual exam, sigmoidoscopy, isn’t commonly used for screening in the U.S.)

For a colonoscopy, you’re sedated while a scope is inserted into your rectum and fed through your colon. A doctor uses a camera on the end of the scope to look for precancerous polyps or signs of cancer. A major advantage of a colonoscopy: A doctor can remove any polyps discovered during this exam.

A virtual colonoscopy is an advanced type of CT scan. It can find polyps or cancer.

Both types of colonoscopies require you to clean out your colon with a mix of laxatives beforehand.

Any abnormalities found on stool-based tests or a virtual colonoscopy require follow-up with a traditional colonoscopy.

When should you be screened?

People at average risk for colorectal cancer should first be screened at age 45. Regular screenings should be done through age 75, as long as your life expectancy is more than 10 years. Screening until age 85 should be based on personal preference and risk.

People at higher risk for colorectal cancer—such as African Americans or those with a family history of the disease—should be screened earlier than age 45. If you’re at increased risk, your doctor may suggest you get specific types of tests. You also may need to be tested more often.

The most important thing is to get it done: The best test for you is the one you’re most likely to do. So talk with your doctor about your risk and the various screenings available.

Sources: American Cancer Society; National Cancer Institute