Three Things Everyone Should Know About Colorectal Cancer Screening
Updated March 16, 2022
Colorectal cancer is one of the most widespread cancers in the U.S., but it’s also one of the most preventable. The key to preventing it: routine screenings.
Take a look at the three things everyone should know about colorectal cancer screenings below, including how they can help prevent the disease entirely:
1. The number of new colorectal cancer cases has declined, but it could be better.
The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2022, more than 151,030 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
Although this number is high, rates of the disease have dropped since the mid-1980s, and its death rate has been decreasing for several decades. This is largely due to increased rates of screening, which can prevent cancer from ever developing (depending on the screening method used).
During a colonoscopy, for instance, precancerous growths (polyps) can be detected and removed, stopping the disease in its tracks.
“I’m a big fan of early detection, but I’m an even bigger fan of prevention,” said David S. Weinberg, MD, MSc, a gastroenterologist and Chair of the Department of Medicine at Fox Chase Cancer Center. “We’ve developed a way to prevent colorectal cancer, and more eligible individuals should take advantage of it.”
2. You have screening options.
Medical organizations recommend that most individuals begin getting screened for colorectal cancer between the ages of 45 and 50, but it’s best to speak to a gastroenterologist directly for their recommendation. You may need to start screening earlier if you have a family history of colorectal cancer or a personal history of certain conditions (such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease).
You have two main choices for colon cancer screenings: stool-based tests and visual exams (like colonoscopy).
With stool-based tests, you provide a fecal sample to be examined in a laboratory for possible signs of cancer. If a stool-based test finds something suspicious, a colonoscopy is generally the next step. Depending on the type of test, you should have a stool-based screening done either annually or every three years.
The most common visual exam is colonoscopy. This test is generally recommended every 10 years. This procedure uses a long, flexible tube with a light and a camera, which is inserted into the rectum and colon while you are sedated. The camera allows the doctor to visualize the inner walls of the colon and rectum and spot any suspicious-looking tissue to biopsy. The test can also find polyps (growths that may become cancerous over time). Polyps can be removed during a colonoscopy, which can prevent colorectal cancer from developing.
Colonoscopies require bowel preparation before the procedure, which involves taking medication and/or fluids to clean out the colon. As many people have heard, this means a lot of time in the bathroom the day before the procedure.
“Colonoscopy prep is a necessary evil,” Weinberg said. “The total investment of time and effort every 10 years is less than 24 hours of your life, and it’s completely worth it if we can prevent you from developing colorectal cancer.”
Regardless of the colorectal cancer screening method you and your doctor choose, the important thing is to get screened regularly.
“Once you’re in a screening program, stay in it,” Weinberg said. “Among the average-risk population, fewer than 70 percent of individuals who should get screened do so regularly.”
3. Routine screening can also find colorectal cancer early.
Another advantage of getting screened for colorectal cancer on a regular basis is that it can detect the disease earlier (when it’s small, hasn’t spread, and might be easier to treat).
For instance, people whose colon cancer hasn’t grown beyond the inner lining of the colon may only need a simple procedure to remove the cancer. However, more extensive treatment, such as more extensive surgery or systemic therapy, is often necessary if the cancer has spread.