Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States, even though it’s one of the most preventable of cancers. Current guidelines from the American Cancer Society indicate that everyone over the age of 50 should have their colon screened.
If a close relative has colon cancer, screening should start even sooner. Colon cancer screening is one of the most important things you can do for yourself or your loved ones. The evidence is clear – screening for colon cancer saves lives.
The easiest way to check the colon for cancer is a simple check of the stool for blood. (Most colon cancers bleed, and when they’re just forming the bleeding can’t be seen with the eye.) This test, in which a small stool sample is checked for blood, is known as the fecal immunochemical test (FIT). It is simple, inexpensive, and entirely safe. If results show evidence of colon bleeding, further testing is required, usually with a colonoscopy (described below).
Colonoscopy is the most sensitive test used to check the colon for cancer. It’s more accurate than the FIT test, but also more invasive. Colonoscopy involves insertion of a scope with a tiny camera throughout the entire colon. It’s the most popular colon cancer screening test, taken by millions each year.
A clear advantage of colonoscopy is that it allows your doctor to remove precancerous polyps, or to take biopsies of anything that might look abnormal. However, colonoscopy is more expensive than other tests (although insurance covers it). It requires a cleansing of the bowel the day before the examination, and those having a colonoscopy should be in generally good health before the procedure.
The newest test to check the colon for cancer is virtual colonoscopy. Although the name implies that it’s virtual, it’s actually performed in a fashion similar to regular colonoscopy. The main difference is that instead of using a scope, it uses a CT scanner to take pictures of the inside of the colon, detecting polyps and/or cancer. The preparation is the same as for colonoscopy, but it doesn’t require an IV or sedation, and can be performed quickly, allowing the patient to quickly return to normal activities.
An important consideration with virtual colonoscopy is that if a polyp or cancer is found (about 1 in 10 healthy 50-year-old patients will have a polyp), a colonoscopy is required to remove it. Another consideration with virtual colonoscopy: some insurance plans may not cover it.
UT Southwestern Medical Center is one of the few medical centers positioned to offer any of these colon cancer screening tests. With a modern outpatient clinic and endoscopy area, we’re capable of providing immediate and expert care for any patient who needs screening or is concerned about colon cancer. In addition, all of our physicians have advanced training in their field.
It’s important to discuss colon cancer screening options with your doctor. Regardless of which test you choose, getting your colon checked for cancer is the right thing to do. It could save your life.