If you’re of a “certain age,” you may already know how important regular screenings are in the fight to prevent cancer. Colorectal cancer screenings are especially important if you’re over the age of 45. For those with a high risk of developing this type of cancer, your doctor may want you to start screening even earlier.
Colorectal cancer develops in the colon, rectum, or both. It usually starts in a polyp – a small group of cells that develops on the lining of the colon or rectum. Some polyps are not cancerous, some are pre-cancerous and can turn into cancer, and some are found at an early-stage cancer.
Finding cancer, or pre-cancerous cells, early and treating it promptly gives you the best chance for a long healthy life. Early treatment is easier on you (and less expensive) compared to late-stage cancer treatment.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) has recently issued an update on when to start colon and rectal cancer screening. Previously, the ACS’ recommended that screening starts at age 50. Based on comprehensive research, they now recommend starting at age 45. Screening sounds a little bit unpleasant, but the benefits are really worth it. Plus, screening for most people can start with a stool sample rather than an outpatient medical procedure.
Screening for colorectal cancer is important because there aren’t many early warning signs or symptoms. If you have symptoms, it could mean that cancer has already developed or even spread to other organs. Screening must be done regularly to be effective. Always follow your doctor’s recommendations about what tests you need and how often you need them.
Your doctor will recommend screening methods based on your individual needs and your personal level of risk. But how do you know your risk category for colorectal cancer?
Average risk means you have a healthy lifestyle and no family history of colorectal cancer. With average risk, you should start screening at age 45 and continue to receive screenings until age 75. Your doctor will discuss whether it's appropriate to continue with screenings after age 75. Most people of average risk are able to start with the at-home stool test given to you by your physician and sent to a lab of their preference.
High risk means you have certain conditions or factors that may put you at a greater risk of developing cancer. High risk for colorectal cancer can include
High-risk people should start screenings before age 45 and have more frequent screenings than the average-risk group. If you’re over 45 and fall into the high-risk category, but haven’t started screenings, schedule an appointment as soon as you can with your doctor to talk about what tests would be best for you. Just because you’re high risk does not mean you’ve developed cancer. And if you do, the earlier it’s found the better the outcome!
Some people younger than age 45 may be at a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer. Researchers estimate that colorectal cancer rates will increase by 90% among people in the 20- to 34-year-old age group and by 28% for those between the ages of 35 to 49 over the next ten years. This pattern of increasing rates of colorectal cancer among younger adults is why the ACS lowered its recommended age to start screening to age 45.
The choices you make about how you live your life – lifestyle choices – can determine your chances of getting colorectal cancer. The key lifestyle choices related to cancer include:
Screening can be done either at home with a stool test or with a visual inspection by a doctor. For most people of average risk, stool tests are the first type of screening recommended. These tests are prescribed by your doctor and done at home. They include:
Visual tests require you to completely empty your colon before the test, allowing the doctor to more accurately see the colorectal lining. It’s important to take all of the prescribed medication to clear the colon so that your doctor can see clearly.
Visual colorectal screening tests include:
At Minnesota Oncology, we stress the importance of early detection. Speak with your doctor about your recommended colorectal screening schedule so that you know your status. Remember, early detection provides your very best options for treatment.