Being Well

Why a Colorectal Cancer Screening Is Important for Your Health

Colorectal cancer screening should be part of everyone's preventative care routine.

If you’re generally healthy, you probably don’t think much about your colon, let alone getting a colorectal cancer screening. However, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of death from cancer in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. And it’s not just something older adults need to worry about. While rates of colorectal cancer have decreased in adults age 50 and older, the rates are increasing among younger adults.

Cancer screenings should be a normal part of everyone’s preventative care routine. Most colorectal cancer begins as a polyp or growth in the tissue lining your colon, and it can take as long as 10 to 15 years for a polyp to become cancerous. If doctors can identify signs of cancer or precancerous growths before symptoms emerge, the disease is easier to treat and, in some cases, prevent cancer from occurring. In fact, the five-year survival rate is about 90 percent.

Types of Screenings

There are two main types of screening tests, according to the American Cancer Society.

  1. The first type includes tests that examine the structure of your colon. Doctors use a thin, flexible instrument with a light and camera at the end to examine the inside of your entire colon and rectum (colonoscopy) or lower colon and rectum (sigmoidoscopy) for polyps, abnormal tissue and cancer. Doctors can use the instrument to take tissues samples for evaluation and to remove polyps found during a screening. There’s also virtual colonoscopy, where a series of X-rays are taken to create a detailed image of your colon.

    Research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine indicates that colonoscopy can reduce death from colorectal cancer. For those who get regular screenings after the age of 50, the risk of death is 60 to 70 percent lower risk than those who don’t receive regular colorectal cancer screening.

  2. The second type includes tests that look for signs of cancer by examining stool samples and is less invasive. This includes fecal occult blood tests, which check your stool for microscopic traces of blood. The presence of blood in the stools can be a sign of polyps in the colon. There’s also a DNA stool test, which detects DNA biomarkers associated with cancer in addition to blood.

As with all screening tests, there are some risks associated with colorectal cancer screening, including false negatives or false positives.

When Should You Get Checked?

Cancer screenings should be a normal part of everyone’s preventative care routine. Starting around age 50, you should undergo one of the screening tests above. For patients with normal medical histories, the American Cancer Society recommends a colonoscopy every 10 years and sigmoidoscopy every five years, as long as test results are negative. Experts recommend fecal occult blood tests every year or so.

The type of screening and how often to get screened depends on your age, medical history and family history. For example, a history of inflammatory bowel disease or family history of cancer or polyps increases your risk of developing colorectal cancer, so you may need to undergo screenings more frequently.

Talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of different types of screening tests, the potential risks and side effects, what you need to do to prepare for the test and the follow-up care required. And remember, if your doctor recommends a colorectal cancer screening, it doesn’t mean your healthcare provider thinks you have cancer — she is just looking out for your health!

A good doctor is one who cares about your health. Talk to your doctor about preventative cancer screenings.

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Christine Yu