Colorectal cancer is the third most common type of cancer in the United States. It’s also one of the most preventable with regular screenings. The American Cancer Society recommends starting regular colorectal cancer screenings at age 45 and continuing through age 75 (or 85 depending on your provider’s recommendation).
High Risk Guideline
If you are at high risk for colorectal cancer, you may need to start your screenings earlier than age 45 and get them more often. Your provider may also recommend more sensitive types of screenings. You may be at high risk if you have:
- A family history of colorectal cancer
- A personal history of colorectal cancer or polyps
- Inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease)
- A family history of familial adenomatous polyposis or Lynch syndrome
- A history of radiation to the abdomen to treat a prior cancer
Types of Screenings
The most common and accurate type of screening for colorectal cancer is a colonoscopy. During this procedure, a thin, flexible tube with a tiny camera is inserted into the rectum, which helps the doctor to view the inside of the entire colon and check for any abnormal changes. If a precancerous polyp (abnormal growth) is discovered, your doctor will remove it before it can become cancerous. Keep in mind, a bowel prep is required to empty your bowel before the procedure. Since you’ll be sedated, you’ll need to arrange for a ride home. Colonoscopies are recommended every 10 years (or more often if you’re at high risk).
Additional Screening Options
If you are not at high risk for colorectal cancer, there are other types of screenings you can choose. If any abnormalities are found, you’ll have to follow up with a colonoscopy. These visual screenings also require a bowel prep to empty your bowel, but in most cases, no sedation.
- CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy) every 5 years
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 years
Another alternative is a stool-based test. Using a take-home kit, you’ll collect a stool sample and send it to the lab that checks it for blood and other abnormal changes. Stool-based tests are easier and less invasive than visual tests, but they have to be done more often.
- Fecal immunochemical test (FIT) every year
- Guaiac-based fecal occult blood test (gFOBT) every year
- Stool DNA test every 3 years
These alternative tests are intended only for patients who have low risk for colorectal cancers. If you are at a higher risk for colon cancers (see above), take-home test kits are not recommended.
Healthy Habits to Reduce Your Risk
In addition to colorectal cancer screenings, here are more ways you can lower your cancer risk:
Staying on top of your health is key to preventing serious issues. By adopting smart lifestyle habits and getting regular screenings, you can greatly reduce your cancer risk. Ask your provider about the best type of screening for you.