Most people with colon polyps or early stages of colorectal cancer have no symptoms, which is why screening is such an important part of colorectal health. When caught early, approximately 90% of colorectal cancers can be cured.
Who should be screened for colorectal cancer?
People with no symptoms should begin regular screenings starting at age 45. Those at higher risk for colorectal cancer should talk to their primary care doctor about beginning screenings sooner or having them performed more frequently. Factors that increase colorectal cancer risk include:
- A family history of first-degree relatives with colorectal cancer
- A personal or family history of inflammatory bowel conditions or ulcerative colitis
- Prior radiation to the abdomen
- Symptoms such as changes in bowel habits, constipation or abdominal discomfort, blood in the stool or unexplained weight loss
Colonoscopies continue to be the best screening tool for colorectal cancer because it can detect cancer early and also allow the doctor to prevent cancer by removing any colon polyps found during the procedure. Less invasive options exist, but a colonoscopy will likely be required as a follow up to other tests showing suspicious findings.
Types of screenings
There are several different types of screening tests for colon cancer. You should discuss these options with your doctor and determine which screening method is best based on your individual cancer risk and preferences for screening.
- Colonoscopy: A colonoscopy is a test that uses a colonoscope, which is a long, flexible tube with a light and camera lens at the end, to examine inside the entire large intestine. Patients are typically sedated during the procedure, and doctors are able to remove polyps or other tissues for further examination, which can prevent future colorectal cancers. Colonoscopies are recommended every 10 years for those at average risk.
- Computed tomography (CT or CAT) colonography: Often called a virtual colonoscopy, this method uses a CT scan to search for abnormal masses. Virtual colonoscopies are recommended as a screening method every 5 years for those at average risk. Learn more about virtual colonoscopies at VCU Health.
- Flexible sigmoidoscopy: This test uses a short, thin, flexible, lighted tube to check for polyps or cancer in the rectum and lower third of the colon. This method is recommended every 5 years, or every 10 years with a yearly FIT test.
- Stool tests: These detect potential signs of cancer in a person’s stool.
- Fecal occult blood test (FOBT): This test looks for blood in the stool as a possible sign of polyps or cancer, and it is typically administered once per year.
- Fecal immunochemical test (FIT): This test uses antibodies to detect blood in the stool and is also administered once per year.
- Stool DNA or FIT-DNA tests: This test combines the FIT with a test that detects altered DNA. This test is typically done once a year or once every 3 years in combination with other screening methods.
Colorectal Screening at VCU Health
To schedule an appointment for a colonoscopy or other type of colon screening, please call the Center for Digestive Health at 804-828-8508. Please note that a referral from your primary care provider is required to schedule a colonoscopy.
If you are experiencing symptoms or have been diagnosed with colorectal cancer and would like a second opinion about the diagnosis or treatment plan, please call 804-827-0049 to request an appointment with the colorectal surgery team.
Want to know if there are clinical trials available for colorectal cancer? Search for a clinical trial.