Colorectal cancer is one of the deadliest cancers in the United States, but it doesn’t have to be. As one of the more easily detected and slowly growing cancers, it often can be treated successfully if caught early.
Colorectal cancer occurs when abnormal cells in the colon or rectum divide uncontrollably and ultimately form malignant tumors.
The risk of getting colorectal cancer increases with age, and the vast majority of cases occur in people 50 and older. If you have a first-degree relative (parent, sibling, or child) with a history of colorectal cancer, this puts you at increased risk. Other risk factors include excessive alcohol use, diet, obesity, physical inactivity, and cigarette smoking. In addition, African Americans and people with a history of inflammatory bowel disease are at greater risk for colorectal cancer. If you fall into one of these groups, regular screening is especially important.
Who should get screened for colorectal cancer?
It’s generally recommended that most people begin regular screening for colorectal cancer at age 45, though if you have certain high-risk factors (see above), your doctor may suggest screening at a younger age.
What are the screening methods?
Depending on your risk category, your doctor may suggest one of these tests:
- A fecal immunochemical test, or FIT, looks for tiny amounts of blood in your stool. A FIT kit allows you to collect a stool sample in the privacy of your home and then mail it to the lab. It’s easy and convenient. If your FIT detects blood in the stool, additional testing is recommended. For more information on FIT testing, click here for an article written by Dr. Dana Sloane.
- The stool DNA test, also known as FIT DNA, detects the presence of blood in the stool but also looks for DNA biomarkers that can indicate cancer. As with the FIT kit, you collect your stool sample at home and send it to a lab for analysis. And if a positive result is found, your doctor will recommend additional testing, such as a colonoscopy.
- The colonoscopy is the preferred screening test in patients with an increased risk for colorectal cancer. With this test, preparation and sedation are required, so it’s usually necessary to take a day or two off from work or other activities. If your doctor finds an abnormal growth, it can be removed or biopsied at the time of the procedure. The results of these findings determine next steps.
- The sigmoidoscopy is another test used for colorectal cancer screening that examines the rectum and lower colon. As with the colonoscopy, there is some preparation, but to a lesser extent. And you do not have to be sedated for this procedure. Polyps can be removed, and other growths can be biopsied during this exam.
Regular testing—that’s the bottom line
Regular testing is one of the most successful ways to prevent colorectal cancer—or to find it early, when it’s easier to treat. To figure out which screening test is best for you, talk to your doctor today.