What is a colon cancer screening?

Colon cancer screenings test for cancer in the colon or rectum for patients who are not yet experiencing symptoms. Colorectal cancer occurs when there is abnormal growth in the colon or rectum.

The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be more than 97,000 cases of colon cancer and 43,000 cases of rectal cancer in 2018. Deaths from colorectal cancer have been steadily decreasing because of increased awareness and number of colon cancer screenings.

What are colon cancer screening options?

There are four main tests to detect polyps in the colon or rectum. They include:

During a colonoscopy, a tube with a camera is inserted into the rectum and threaded up to the colon. Your doctor will look for polyps in the colon and the rectum. If any polyps are found, they can be removed during the procedure.

Flexible sigmoidoscopy

A flexible sigmoidoscopy is similar to a colonoscopy. During this procedure, only part of the colon and rectum are evaluated for cancer or polyps. Polyps can be removed during the procedure or your doctor may recommend a colonoscopy as a follow-up.

Double-contrast barium enema
A double-contrast barium enema is an X-ray that is done after barium is inserted into the rectum and spreads into the colon. The barium allows the X-rays to show up in more detail.

CT colonography
A CT colonography, also commonly referred to as virtual colonoscopy, can produce detailed images of the colon so your doctor can detect polyps or cancer.

Who should have a colon cancer screening?

The American Cancer Society recommends colon cancer screenings starting at age 50 for men and women considered average risk.

For individuals considered at higher risk for colon cancer, screenings may need to begin before age 50 or occur more frequently. Individuals are considered to be at higher risk if they meet one or more of the following conditions:

  • Personal history of colon cancer or polyps
  • Personal history of IBD (ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease)
  • Family history of colon cancer or polyps
  • Family history of a hereditary colon cancer syndrome, such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or Lynch syndrome

How often should you have a colon cancer screening?

Frequency of colon cancer screening depends on what test you are having. If polyps are not found during a colonoscopy, you should repeat the test in ten years. A flexible sigmoidoscopy, CT colonography or double-contrast barium enema should be done every five years.

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