Colorectal cancer is a disease that causes cells within the colon or rectum to divide until they build a malignant tumor. The consequences of colorectal cancer can be severe, which is why colorectal cancer screening tests are such important disease screening exams. Among the many types of medical screening and preventative health screening exams available, from cardiovascular screening to a thyroid disease test, colorectal cancer screening tests are ones that we sometimes like to ignore. There are some good reasons we should not, and knowing what some of the different tests involve can help.

How Serious is Colorectal Cancer?

After lung cancer, it is the leading cause of cancer deaths. Between 100,000 and 150,000 people are diagnosed with the disease each year, and close to 50,000 people die from it. Thankfully, death rates and new cancer cases are declining among those over the age of 50, partly due to a decline in smoking and partly due to increased screenings. At the same time, colorectal cancer rates seem to be rising for younger people.

Am I At Risk?

There are several risk factors for colorectal cancer that make it more important for certain people to get regular colorectal cancer screening tests. These risks include having a family member with the disease, obesity, smoking, and a lack of physical activity. People who suffer from IBS, ulcerative colitis, or Crohn’s disease also have a higher risk than the rest of the population.

Who Needs to Get Screened?

Screening is recommended for everyone over the age of 50 until the age of 75. For those with colorectal cancer risk factors, screening should begin earlier: possibly as young as 40 years of age.

How Are Colorectal Cancer Screening Tests Performed?

There are several different ways to test for colorectal cancer, and each has its merits.

  1. Stool DNA There is one stool DNA test currently approved by the FDA. This test looks for nine DNA biomarkers and for infinitesimal amounts of blood in the stool, all of which are associated with colorectal cancer. In this type of test, the patient collects a stool sample which is mailed to a laboratory for testing. This test is relatively easy and does identify more cancers than some other tests. However, it is also more likely to return a false positive.
  2. High-sensitivity fecal occult blood tests This type of test looks for blood in the stool that cannot be seen. Samples are collected by the patient and returned to the doctor, and since some types of this test can detect blood proteins from food as well as from human beings, it’s important with some FOBT tests to avoid certain foods before the screening. These colorectal cancer screening tests should be performed once every year or two for people over the age of 50.
  3. Colonoscopy The traditional colonoscopy uses a lighted flexible tube to go up the rectum and into the colon. The purpose of this test is to identify any abnormal growths and possibly remove them if necessary. This test only needs to be performed once every 10 years if test results are negative and is highly effective at reducing deaths from colorectal cancer.
  4. Virtual colonoscopy This type of screening method uses a CT scanner to take pictures of the colon and rectum from the outside. Computers assemble the picture into images that reveal abnormalities, which makes a virtual colonoscopy less invasive than the standard colonoscopy. It also has very little risk of complication and is highly accurate. If abnormalities are found, a standard colonoscopy must generally be performed to remove them.

    How Do I Know Which of the Colorectal Cancer Screening Tests I Should Choose?

    There is no one right answer for everyone. The choice depends on your personal preference and convenience, your age and medical history, your family’s medical history, how much follow-up care is anticipated, and costs and insurance considerations. Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, all insurance policies granted after September 2010 are required to cover colorectal cancer screening tests. However, different insurance companies will cover different types of tests.

    Colorectal cancer is a very serious disease and this type of medical screening is essential to prolonging life and even quality of life.