Mar 25, 2020 10:00 AM

drawing of a colon

Updated May 2021

Every year, around 145,000 Americans are diagnosed with colorectal cancer. More than 50,000 people die from it.

But the good news is that colorectal cancer is easy to prevent through screening, and you can lower your risk by making lifestyle changes.

Colorectal cancer, also known as colon cancer or rectal cancer, is a disease where cancer cells form in the colon or rectum. They often start as polyps, which can easily be removed if they are caught early. Getting routine screenings and adopting healthy lifestyle habits can lower your chances of getting colorectal cancer.

Get Screened

Colorectal cancer can be found through routine screenings long before you show any symptoms. These are the current recommendations for colorectal cancer screenings:

  • People age 45 or older should get screened.
  • If you have a family history of colorectal cancer, talk with your doctor about being screened 5 to 10 years before the age your family member was diagnosed.
  • If you have any of the following symptoms, talk to your doctor about getting a screening:
      • Blood in the stool
      • A change in bowel habits that lasts more than a few days
      • Rectal bleeding
      • Cramping or abdominal (belly) pain
      • Unintended weight loss

Adopt a Healthy Lifestyle

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity is a risk factor for developing colorectal cancer. Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight can also help prevent other health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
  • Avoid tobacco. Tobacco products have more than 70 chemicals that can cause cancer. These chemicals travel to your lungs, into your blood and throughout your body, which raises your risk of different types of cancer, including colorectal cancer.
  • Be physically active. Research shows regular physical activity lowers your risk of colorectal cancer. Aim to move 3–5 minutes every hour, or get 150 minutes of moderate activity each week.
  • Eat healthy by adding more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains to your diet.
woman presenting to large group of people
A member of HCI's Community Outreach Team presents information about colon cancer screening.

Types of Colorectal Cancer Screening

Colonoscopy is probably the first thing that comes to mind when you think about screening for colorectal cancer. Colonoscopy is common, but it is not the only type of colorectal cancer screening.

  • Colonoscopy: Using a lighted scope, the health care provider looks at the full length of the colon for anything unusual. If the provider finds polyps, they will remove the polyps to test for cancer or to prevent them from turning into cancer.
  • Sigmoidoscopy: Using a lighted scope, the health care provider looks at the lower part of the colon for anything unusual. If the provider finds polyps, they will remove the polyps to test for cancer or to prevent them from turning into cancer.
  • Barium enema: The health care provider fills the lower colon with a liquid that contains barium. (Barium helps x-ray images show up better.) The provider takes x-rays to look for polyps or anything unusual in the colon.
  • Fecal occult blood test (FOBT): This test looks for small amounts of blood in the stool. The stool sample is usually collected at home and delivered to the laboratory for testing. Blood in the stool may be a sign of cancer in the colon.
  • Physical exam and history: A health care provider examines your body for signs of disease. Your personal health habits, past illnesses, and symptoms help guide the exam.
  • Digital rectal examination (DRE): As part of the physical exam, the health care provider may examine the anus and rectum with a gloved finger.
  • Virtual colonoscopy: The colon is examined through a computed tomography scan that creates images of the colon.
  • Biopsy: The health care provider removes cell or tissue samples so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer. Biopsies are often done as part of a colonoscopy.

Choosing the Right Test

It is best to talk with your doctor to figure out which type of colorectal cancer screening test is best for you. Your age, medical history, family history, and general health play a part in this decision. You may also want to ask your doctor these questions about the different types of tests:

  • What are the risks?
  • How do I prepare for the test?
  • Will I need to be sedated for this test?
  • What type of follow-up care do I need after the test?
  • Does my insurance cover this test?
  • What will the out-of-pocket cost for the test be?
  • How often should I be screened for colorectal cancer?

Please note, each type of colorectal cancer screening test has a different set of guidelines, including how often you should get screened. Talk with your doctor about when you should start getting screened and how often you should be screened.

If you have a first-degree relative (mom, dad, brother, sister) or two or more members of extended family (aunt, uncle, grandparent) diagnosed with colorectal cancer or colorectal polyps, talk with a genetic counselor. They can discuss your family history and figure out if genetic testing is a good option for you. 

For more information about colorectal cancer or any other cancer topic, please contact the Cancer Learning Center at 888-424-2100 to talk with a cancer information specialist.

colorectal cancer colonoscopy cancer screening cancer prevention

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