For many adults, the colonoscopy has become a right of passage—a milestone on the path to aging and a shared experience to grimace over.
While they don’t top the list of favorite pastimes for most people, colorectal cancer screenings play a critical role in saving lives. Colorectal cancer is the third most common type of non-skin cancer for both men and women and the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States (after lung cancer).
If detected early, however, colorectal cancer can be treated.
Who’s at Greatest Risk?
The number-one risk factors for colorectal cancer include advanced age (45 and older) and a family history of the disease. For most patients, screenings are recommended beginning at age 45.
Those with other risk factors present should start earlier. These include:
- Excessive alcohol use
- Physical inactivity
- Cigarette smoking
- History of inflammatory bowel disease
Types of Colorectal Cancer Screenings
Most colorectal cancers begin with a polyp, a growth in the tissue that lines the inner surface of the colon or rectum. There are several tests available to detect these polyps before they become cancerous. Some of the tests can even prevent cancer from developing because they allow doctors to remove the abnormal growths immediately.
Fecal Immunochemical test (FIT): Fecal Immunochemical test (FIT) is used to find tiny amounts of blood in the stool that may not be visible and could be a sign of cancer or large polyps. This test should be completed every year. The FIT test is completed at home using a test kit from your healthcare provider. You will use a stick or brush to obtain a small amount of stool. The test kit is returned to the doctor or lab where the sample is checked for the presence of blood. A positive result indicates the presence of blood in the stool. When performed every year for patients 45 to 80 years old, it can reduce the number of colorectal cancer deaths by 15 to 33 percent.
Colonoscopy: Colonoscopy is the most efficient screening for colorectal cancer. This screening involves a flexible lighted tube with a small camera on the end. The camera is used to look for abnormalities (like polyps) across the entire length of the colon and rectum. If any polyps are found, they will be removed during the exam. A positive result indicates the presence of abnormal cell growth. This does not necessarily indicate cancer. Your doctor will go over your results with you to make sure you understand any required next steps.
Colorectal cancer screenings might be unpleasant, but the alternative is much worse. By following the advice of their providers, patients over the age of 45 can drastically reduce their risk of developing colorectal cancer.