Colon Cancer Screening
Colon cancer is cancer of the large intestine and rectum. It happens more often in people aged 50 and older. Usually there are no symptoms until the cancer has spread. That's why screening is important: it has been shown to help prevent colon cancer and decrease colon cancer deaths.
The goals of screening are:
- Help prevent cancer
- Treat any cancer before it spreads
- Lower your risk of needing major surgery
- Lower your risk of dying from colon cancer
Types of Tests
Stool test: Also called a fecal occult blood test (FOBT), this test looks for small amounts of blood in your stool. A member of your health care team will give you test cards to take home and instructions for collecting samples of your stool. The test takes several days to complete.
Sigmoidoscopy: This is an exam of the inner lining of the rectum and the lower colon to check for colon cancer, polyps, and inflammation. The test uses a flexible, lighted tube (a sigmoidoscope) that is about the width of your finger. The exam takes about 15 minutes. You may feel pressure, bloating, or cramping during the exam.
Colonoscopy: A colonoscopy is an exam of the inner lining of the rectum and the entire colon to check for colon cancer, polyps, and inflammation. The test uses a flexible, lighted tube that is about the width of your finger.
We recommend you get screened for colon cancer. Colon cancer is so slow-growing it can be prevented or cured if discovered early enough, and screening is the best way to find it.
There is a small risk of a serious complication during or after a colonoscopy. Complications might include bleeding (especially after a biopsy or removal of a polyp) and damage to the colon.
Group Health recommends that starting at age 50, you have one of the following screening tests for colon cancer:
- Have a stool test every year.
- Have a stool test every 3 years and a flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 years.
- Have a colonoscopy every 10 years.
Note: If you have blood in your stool or a change in your bowel movements, make an appointment to see your doctor.
Talk to your doctor about starting colon cancer screening at a younger age if you have any of the following risk factors:
- Ulcerative colitis
- Crohn's disease
- A close relative (parent, brother, sister, or child) who had colon cancer or a precancerous polyp in the colon, especially before age 60
- Polyps (growths) in your colon or rectum
If the stool test result is positive, we will recommend a colonoscopy.
Having a positive stool test does not mean you have cancer. There are many reasons why you can have blood in your stool, and cancer is only one of them. Most people with a positive test do not have cancer or precancerous polyps.
If a polyp or growth is found during the colonoscopy, it will either be removed or a small tissue sample (biopsy) will be taken. Not all growths are harmful. Most do not grow into anything serious. Depending on how the sample looks under the microscope, your doctor will decide what follow-up is needed.
Coverage may vary by plan. To check your benefits, refer to your coverage agreement or contact Customer Service.
Reduce Your Risk of Cancer
There isn't enough evidence to recommend changes in diet, such as eating foods high fiber, avoiding red meat, or limiting alcohol use to prevent colon cancer. However, the following activities will lead to a healthier lifestyle and reduce your overall risk of cancer:
- Be active. Get 30 minutes or more of physical activity on most days of the week.
- Eat a diet that is low in saturated fat and full of fruit and vegetables.
- Don't smoke. For help on how to quit smoking, check our resources to quit tobacco.