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Get checked: Colonoscopy or other screenings may help head off colorectal cancer

Screening is an important preventative measure to catch any signs of colorectal cancer at an early stage. Yet only 55 percent of those who should get screened actually do.

More people are surviving colorectal cancer than ever before. It’s a promising trend over the past two decades that we can attribute to greater awareness and colonoscopy screenings. Today, there are more than 1 million colorectal cancer survivors in the United States, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Colorectal cancer is the third most common non-skin cancer affecting both men and women. An estimated 132,700 new diagnoses are expected this year alone. Screening is an important preventative measure to catch any signs of cancer at an early stage. With screening, doctors may identify polyps before they develop into cancer. If cancer has already developed, the earlier it is found, the easier it may be to treat. Yet only 55 percent of those who should get screened actually do.

Several screening options are available, including a stool DNA test and colon capsule endoscopy, but colonoscopy remains the gold standard test to detect colorectal cancer early. During a colonoscopy, a trained specialist, such as a gastroenterologist, places a long, flexible, narrow tube called a colonoscope or scope in the body. This tool has a light and tiny camera on one end so your doctor can look for irritated and swollen tissue, ulcers, polyps, and cancer inside the colon and rectum.

Here are the American Cancer Society’s colorectal screening guidelines:

  • Adults at average or low risk screened starting at age 45.
  • Adults at higher risk or with a family history of colorectal cancer should talk to their doctor about a more aggressive screening test.
  • If your family does not have a history of colorectal cancer, you should be screened every 10 years.
  • You should be screened up to the age of 75. Patients older than 75 should consult their doctor about whether additional screenings are necessary.

Acceptable types of screening tests include:

  • Stool tests
    • Fecal immunochemical test every year
    • Highsensitivity, guaiacbased fecal occult blood test every year
    • Multi-target stool DNA test (Cologuard) every three years
  • Endoscopic or imaging examinations

If your doctor finds precancerous polyps during the colonoscopy, he or she would remove them at that time. Doing so reduces the risk of the polyps developing into cancer. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of getting a colonoscopy. While it might sound like an unpleasant procedure, keep in mind that you will be asleep and will not feel a thing.

It’s also helpful to know the symptoms of colorectal cancer. Too many times, I’ve seen patients who’ve ignored the symptoms for so long that they end up being diagnosed with advanced cancer, which is more challenging to treat than early-stage disease. Symptoms include:

  • A change in bowel habits
  • Blood in the stool
  • Anemia, a condition in which the body does not have enough healthy red blood cells
  • Unusual abdominal pain that does not go away
  • Unexplained weight lost

These symptoms are often experienced when the cancer is in its advanced stages. Most patients with early stage colorectal cancer may not have any outward physical symptoms. That’s why colonoscopy screening is so critical.

Get answers to common questions about colorectal cancer.