About Colon Cancer
Colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in both men and women in the U.S. However, the death rate has been dropping for several decades thanks to screening and better treatments.
At the same time, more and more cases are being found in younger adults under the age of 50.
Screening can help prevent colon cancer by detecting growths called polyps, which could turn into cancer later. Screening can also catch colon cancer in its early stages, when it’s easier to treat.
When should I get screened?
The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that men and women at average risk for colon cancer start regular screening at age 45.
Screening for higher-risk individuals
If you have a personal or family history of colon cancer or polyps, a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease (such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease), a hereditary cancer syndrome (such as familial adenomatous polyposis or Lynch syndrome) or have had radiation to the abdomen or pelvic area to treat a prior cancer, you are at increased risk for colon cancer.
If you fall into one or more of these high-risk categories, the American Cancer Society recommends beginning screening 10 years before the age of the youngest member in your family to be diagnosed. Patients at increased risk for colon cancer may need to be screened more often than average-risk patients.
What are my screening options?
There are a number of tests that may be used to screen for colon cancer. Your provider can help you decide what options may be best for you based on your age, risk factors, overall health and personal preferences.
Colonoscopy involves using a small flexible tube with a camera at the end to examine the full length of the inside of the colon. You will be sedated for the test, so you’ll need a ride home afterward. If the exam finds polyps or other suspicious growths, they can be removed during the test.
For people at average risk for colon cancer and who have had no polyps found, colonoscopy only needs to be done once every 10 years.
Learn more about colonoscopy.
Virtual colonoscopy is CT scan that produces highly detailed 3D images of your abdomen and pelvis. These images show polyps and other abnormalities inside your colon and rectum. Virtual colonoscopy is minimally invasive and does not require sedation.
For average-risk patients, this procedure should be done every five years.
Learn more about virtual colonoscopy.
At-home stool tests
These tests are quick and easy. You collect a stool sample at home, which is then sent to a lab for testing.
Fecal immunochemical test (FIT) and fecal occult blood test (FOBT)
FIT and FOBT both look for hidden blood in the stool, which can be a sign of cancer. For average-risk patients, this test should be done every year.
This test looks for hidden blood plus DNA changes from polyp or cancer cells. For average-risk patients, this test should be done every three years.
Learn more about FIT, FOBT and stool DNA tests.
Symptoms of colon cancer to look out for
Following colon cancer screening recommendations is key to staying on top of your health, but it’s still important to be aware of the symptoms of colon cancer. Being able to recognize these symptoms will help you know when it’s time to make an appointment with your provider.
- Change in bowel movements including diarrhea, constipation, change in consistency of stool or narrowing of stool
- Rectal bleeding/blood in stool, which may be present if you see bright red blood following a bowel movement, or if your stool appears dark brown or black
- Weakness and fatigue due to internal blood loss, unintentional weight loss and/or a change in bowel habits
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it does not mean that you have colon cancer. There are many other conditions that can cause these same symptoms. Still, it’s important to speak with your provider about any symptoms that last longer than two weeks. It could very well be nothing, but it’s best to know for sure what’s going on in your body so that you can get whatever care you may need.