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The Bottom Line on Screening for Colorectal Cancer


Here are guidelines for getting screened for this serious disease.

Colorectal cancer may not be something you think about on a regular basis, and the thought of getting screened for the disease may have you thinking “not me—I don’t want to do that!” But the fact is that getting regular colorectal cancer screenings is one of the best and easiest things you can do to prevent this disease.

Unfortunately, most people don’t get early warning signs if they have colorectal cancer. Even if there are signs, they may resemble other conditions, like irritable bowel syndrome or even hemorrhoids, so it may not spur them to have a doctor check for cancer. That’s why many people who have colorectal cancer (and don’t get screened regularly) don’t find out until the cancer is advanced—and why colorectal cancer is the second deadliest cancer behind lung cancer.

When should I begin colorectal cancer screenings?

Nearly 90% of colorectal cancer occurs in people who are age 50 or older, but cases in younger adults have been rising. Doctors now recommend that people at average risk for colorectal cancer get screened beginning at age 45. If you are at an increased risk for the disease, it may be recommended that you begin screening at a younger age. Even if you have no signs of colorectal cancer, you should still be screened.

Do I have options when it comes to colorectal cancer screenings?

The gold standard of colorectal cancer screening is a colonoscopy, but there are other screening options as well. These include:

  • Fecal occult blood test
  • DNA stool test
  • Sigmoidoscopy
  • Virtual colonoscopy

Some of these tests are less invasive than a colonoscopy so they may be a good option for people who don’t want to or can’t get a colonoscopy. It is best to discuss screening options with your doctor.

Why is screening so important?

Since colorectal cancer typically doesn’t result in noticeable symptoms until more advanced stages, it may be too late to treat it successfully if you wait until you have symptoms. Actress Kirstie Alley was diagnosed only shortly before she passed away in December 2022 from the disease. Chadwick Boseman, “Black Panther” film star, lost his battle with colon cancer at the age of 43 after being diagnosed with an advanced stage of the disease a few years earlier.

Colorectal cancer screenings can find cancer at an early stage, before symptoms may be present. This makes it more easily treatable. Screenings may also detect abnormalities that may become cancerous in the future, such as polyps. If found, these can be removed before cancer develops. When this happens, the screening can be considered to have prevented the disease from occurring at all.

OK, I’m in! What should I do next?

The best thing to do is to talk to your doctor about your options for colorectal cancer screenings. Together you can determine the best screening for you based on your age, health status, insurance coverage, and other factors. Keep in mind that colorectal cancer screening is not a one-time thing. Depending on the type of screening you have, the findings of the screening, and other risk factors, your doctor will let you know how often you should repeat screenings once you begin.

Dignity Health offers specialized surgical options for the treatment of cancer, including daVinci robotic-assisted surgery at Mercy Medical Center.

To find a doctor or surgeon, use our Find a Doctor search tool.

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Date Last Reviewed: January 19, 2023

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD