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Getting Screened for Colon Cancer: What to Know Before You Go

Getting Screened for Colon Cancer: What to Know Before You Go

Senior woman talking with her doctorThe fact that one in three adults between the ages of 50 and 75 haven’t been tested for colon cancer shows that the public isn’t putting a high priority on getting screened. But getting screened is crucial for helping to detect cancer in its infancy stages. By detecting cancer early on and seeking the correct treatment, patients can drastically increase their survival rate.

But just discussing the risk of getting colon cancer can cause worry — and the proverb “out of sight, out of mind” gets repeated when talking about screening options. However, getting screened doesn’t need to be distressing or inconvenient. The good news is that you have different options when it comes to the types of screenings that are available.

If you’re wondering about when and how to get screened for colon cancer, here are a few things to know before you go.

When to Get Screened

Doctors typically recommend starting colon cancer screening at age 50, but this also depends on certain risk factors. It’s important to discuss these risk factors with your doctor so that they can establish an appropriate, regular schedule for you to get screened.

Your odds of being diagnosed with colon cancer also depend on your age (the average diagnosis is at age 63), family history, race (African Americans typically are diagnosed at a younger age), gender (men have a slightly higher tendency), physical fitness (more active individuals have a lower risk), and even nutrition (red meat and processed meat have been linked to colorectal cancers).

The Types of Colon Cancer Screening


It’s safe to say that the colonoscopy is the “gold standard” of colon cancer screening and prevention: it can prevent up to 80% of cancers.

Preparation for a colonoscopy involves fasting prior to the exam, and you’ll also need to take laxatives to clean out your colon. For the colonoscopy itself, you’ll be sedated and the doctor will use a colonoscope (a flexible tube with a digital camera and a light on the end) to look inside the rectum. If the doctor locates any polyps, tumors, or something abnormal, they can remove them during the test and send them for a biopsy.

While not the most “fun” option, colonoscopies are important for good colon health.

Computed Tomography (CT) Colonography

Like a colonoscopy, a colonography requires bowel preparation before the test. However, this procedure does not require you to be sedated.

For a CT colonography, the doctor will pump air into the rectum and the colon and take scans of the region to look for any polyps or abnormalities. If they see anything suspicious, they’ll often perform a follow up colonoscopy and a biopsy of the area.

This procedure is less invasive than a colonoscopy, but is recommended to be completed more often — generally every five years.


A sigmoidoscopy is like a less intense colonoscopy that only surveys the lower colon. The bowel preparation for this test isn’t as extensive as with a colonoscopy, and sedation is rarely needed.

Similarly to a colonography, if the doctor finds anything suspicious during the procedure, they’ll follow up with a full colonoscopy. This type of procedure should be repeated every five years.

Double-Contrast Barium Enema

Another sedation-free test is a double-contrast barium enema. The doctor will insert a liquid containing barium sulfate into the rectum, drain the liquid, and then pump air into the rectum to spread the solution throughout the colon. The doctor then takes x-rays and reviews them to see if they show any polyps or cancer.

This test may also be followed up with a full colonoscopy, and should be performed every five years.

Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) and Fecal Immunological Test (FIT)

An alternative to direct rectal and colon procedures is fecal testing. An FOBT or FIT looks for blood in the stool, which may indicate the presence of polyps or cancer.

However, blood in the stool can also be the cause of other ailments, like bleeding in other parts of the digestive tract. Additionally, this test only provides a small to moderate reduction in colorectal cancer deaths each year.

This test needs to be performed several times a year (and repeated each year) to be effective.

Stool DNA Tests

As a sort of pre-colonoscopy test, Stool DNA tests look for changes in patients’ stool DNA that could indicate the presence of polyps or cancer. This procedure is not very invasive, and can actually be administered at home. Stool DNA tests are recommended for people with only an average risk of colorectal cancer, and can be done at any time your doctor recommends.

If you are at all concerned about getting screened for colon cancer or believe that you are experiencing some of the early signs of colon cancer, talk to your doctor about what type of test is best for you.