What are the tests to screen for colon cancer?
Jeffrey Fein, MD, is a gastroenterologist with Banner Medical Group. His office can be reached at
Question: What kinds of tests are used to screen for colon cancer? When should I begin screening and with what frequency?
Answer: Various tests are used to screen for colon cancer, but colonoscopy is by far considered the gold standard. While procedures such as a fecal occult blood testing, flexible sigmoidoscopy and virtual colonoscopy are acceptable tools to screen for colon cancer, colonoscopy is the only procedure that can detect the disease while at the same time enable physicians to remove cancer-causing polyps.
Generally speaking, screening for colon cancer should begin at age 50 for individuals considered to be at average risk. Those at average risk have no known family history of colon cancer in a first-degree relative such as a parent or sibling younger than age 60, no personal history of colon polyps and no history of ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory disease of the colon. African Americans at average risk should begin screening at age 45.
Screening recommendations may differ for those with a higher risk of developing colon cancer. Individuals with a family history of the disease in a first-degree relative younger than age 60 should begin screening at an age 10 years younger than the colon cancer diagnosis of that relative.
The frequency of colon cancer screening is dictated by the findings of the initial colonoscopy. For most patients, colonoscopy is repeated every three to five years if a pre-cancerous polyp is detected and once every 10 years if no polyps are found.
Regardless of a person’s individual risk factors, I encourage everyone to undergo appropriate colon cancer screening. Colonoscopy is the only screening procedure proven to both prevent colon cancer and save lives, and it is the American College of Gastroenterology’s preferred screening exam. The organization’s website, www.gi.org, is a great resource for information about colon cancer and other digestive diseases. Banner Health’s website, www.BannerHealth.com, also offers a wealth of information on the subject.
Know your risk factors and begin screening accordingly. Colon cancer can be prevented.