Colon Cancer Screening: Care Instructions

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Your Care Instructions

Colorectal cancer occurs in the colon or rectum. That's the lower part of your digestive system. It is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. It often starts with small growths called polyps in the colon or rectum. Polyps are usually found with screening tests. Depending on the type of test, any polyps found may be removed during the tests.

Colorectal cancer usually does not cause symptoms at first. But regular tests can help find it early, before it spreads and becomes harder to treat.

Your risk for colorectal cancer gets higher as you get older. Some experts say that adults should start regular screening at age 50 and stop at age 75. Others say to start before age 50 or continue after age 75. Talk with your doctor about your risk and when to start and stop screening. You may have one of several tests.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

What are the main screening tests for colon cancer?

  • Stool tests. These include the fecal occult blood test (FOBT), the fecal immunochemical test (FIT), and the combined fecal immunochemical test and stool DNA test (FIT-DNA). These tests check stool samples for signs of cancer. If your test is positive, you will need to have a colonoscopy.
  • Sigmoidoscopy. This test lets your doctor look at the lining of your rectum and the lowest part of your colon. Your doctor uses a lighted tube called a sigmoidoscope. This test can't find cancers or polyps in the upper part of your colon. In some cases, polyps that are found can be removed. But if your doctor finds polyps, you will need to have a colonoscopy to check the upper part of your colon.
  • Colonoscopy. This test lets your doctor look at the lining of your rectum and your entire colon. The doctor uses a thin, flexible tool called a colonoscope. It can also be used to remove polyps or get a tissue sample (biopsy).

What tests do you need?

The following guidelines are for adults who are not at high risk for colorectal cancer. You may have at least one of these tests as directed by your doctor.

  • Fecal immunochemical test (FIT) or guaiac fecal occult blood test (gFOBT) every year
  • Sigmoidoscopy every 5 years
  • Colonoscopy every 10 years

If you are over age 75, you can work with your doctor to decide if screening is a good option.

Talk with your doctor about when you need to be tested. And discuss which tests are right for you.

Your doctor may recommend earlier or more frequent testing if you:

  • Have had colorectal cancer before.
  • Have had colon polyps.
  • Have symptoms of colorectal cancer. These include blood in your stool and changes in your bowel habits.
  • Have a parent, brother or sister, or child with colon polyps or colorectal cancer.
  • Have a bowel disease. This includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease.
  • Have a rare polyp syndrome that runs in families, such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP).
  • Have had radiation treatments to the belly or pelvis.

When should you call for help?

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You have any changes in your bowel habits.
  • You have any problems.

Where can you learn more?

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