As with most other cancers, colorectal cancer doesn’t always come with obvious signs and symptoms. Colorectal cancer is often found after symptoms appear. Still, most people with early colon or rectal cancer don’t have symptoms of the disease. Symptoms usually only occur with more advanced diseases. Therefore, it’s important to understand your family history and talk with your primary care physician about scheduling regular colorectal cancer screening.
Even if you’re feeling fine, the cancer specialists at Willamette Valley Cancer Institute encourage you to follow the recommended guidelines set in place by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, which is to be screened starting at age 50.
Fortunately, several screening tests for colon and rectal cancers exist, including some recently made widely available. In addition to detecting colorectal cancer when it is present, regular screening can also prevent it by allowing your doctor to find and remove polyps before they have a chance to turn into cancer. If you’re 50 or older or have colorectal cancer in your family, we recommend talking to your doctor about colorectal cancer screening.
There are several common types of screening options. These tests range from those performed at a healthcare facility to some that can be done at home. Keep in mind that even though at-home testing offers more privacy, they are more prone to producing a false positive or a misinterpretation of the results.
Common colorectal cancer screening tests include:
The best screening method depends on factors such as your age and risk for developing colon and rectal cancer.
Screening recommendations for colon and rectal cancer are different for each person based on whether they are at average risk or at high risk for the disease. It's important to learn your family history of cancer, know your risk, and get regularly screened at the appropriate age to detect colorectal cancer at an early stage.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has developed guidelines for patients who are at moderate risk. These patients would tend to have no family history of colorectal cancer and are, on average, fairly healthy. Beginning at age 50, both men and women should start screening.
Every year starting at age 50, perform a Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) at home to detect signs of blood in the colon. This would be either the FIT or the Guaiac-based FOBT. A DNA Stool test would only be performed when directed by your physician. You may not need to have an actual colonoscopy or another internal exam every year. Discuss options with your doctor for other screening options in between.
If you are considered at high risk for colorectal cancer, your doctor may recommend earlier and more frequent screening. Factors that could indicate an increased risk of colorectal cancer include:
Talk with your doctor if you feel as though you may fall into the high-risk category. Prevention is key and especially important for those at high risk of developing colon or rectal cancer.
Suppose you have screening test results that suggest colorectal cancer or you have symptoms. In that case, your doctor must find out whether they are due to cancer or some other cause. Your doctor asks about your personal and family medical history and gives you a physical exam.
If your physical exam and test results do not suggest cancer, your doctor may decide that no further tests are needed, and no treatment is necessary. However, your doctor may recommend a schedule for checkups.
If tests show an abnormal area (such as a polyp), a biopsy to check for cancer cells may be necessary. Often, abnormal tissue can be removed during colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy. A pathologist checks the tissue for cancer cells using a microscope.
Any polyps biopsied during a colonoscopy will be sent for testing. If they return a cancer diagnosis, your cancer doctor will work to stage the cancer. Discovering whether the cancer has spread helps the care team to determine the stage. Sometimes staging is not complete until after surgery to remove the tumor.
You can read more about staging on our Colon & Rectal Cancer Staging page.
It is important to remember that not all polyps are cancerous. It is always best to wait to hear the final results from your doctor before jumping to conclusions.
It is important to stay on top of your colorectal screening with your primary care physician. At Willamette Valley Cancer Institute, our highly experienced cancer care specialists are here to help treat your colorectal cancer with an individualized treatment plan.
In addition to paying attention to symptoms, and understanding more about your genetic risks, talking to your doctor about getting screened for colorectal cancer is arguably the most effective way you can reduce your risk.