From the expert: How colon cancer screening can save your life.

If you’re 50 or older, don’t put this off – even if you’re healthy. Here’s why.

Cancer screening? But I’m healthy.

I’ve known a lot of patients who put off their recommended cancer screenings, especially colon cancer screening. For some, it’s the fear of the preparation and the test itself. For others, they’re healthy and don’t have symptoms. It’s hard to face something as scary as cancer. But, I’ve made it my life’s work to raise awareness about how preventive screenings save lives.

I see, almost every day, the positive outcome screening can have. Sometimes it’s giving patients peace of mind that they’re healthy, or catching something early that can be treated quickly. It’s often the person who was convinced they didn’t need screening, but did so after relentless prodding from a spouse or other family member, who learns they have a growth that may have progressed to cancer if it hadn’t been found.

At the end of the day, it’s not just you that you have to think about. It’s your family and those you love, who want you to be healthy for as long as possible.

Here are some common questions I get about colon cancer screening:

Why get screened?

Colon cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. when you combine men and women. It’s also a cancer that can be prevented or detected at an early stage. Most colon cancers occur in men and women who are 50 or older, so we recommend colon cancer screening starting at age 50 for everyone (or sooner for those with a family history or other risks).

African American and Native American populations are at a higher risk for colon cancer and should start getting screened at age 45.

What do screenings do?

Screening is how we look for cancer or pre-cancer in people who have no symptoms of the disease. Regular screening can often prevent colon cancer by finding and removing growths (“polyps”) before they become cancer. Screening can also find colon cancer early, when it’s most likely to be curable. When found at an early stage, before it’s spread, the five-year relative survival rate is about 90 percent. But less than half of colorectal cancers are found at this early stage.

What are my screening options?

Most colon cancer screening in the U.S. is done with either a colonoscopy or a stool test like the FIT test. There are a few screening options. Most are covered 100 percent by insurance, even if you haven’t met your deductible. Check with your insurance company to see what they’ll cover. 

HealthPartners members:
Check your coverage here.

What test is right for me?

Work with your doctor to know which test is right for you. The at home stool tests are an attractive option to some people because they’re private and there’s no special diet to prepare. That’s good for patients who let the fear of a more invasive test stop them from getting screened. Your doctor can explain all of your options to you.

I have no family history. Why do I need to be screened?

Most people who get colon cancer have no family history of the disease. But if you have a parent, brother, sister or child who has colon cancer, then you may have a higher chance of getting it and you need to start getting tested before age 50. I can’t stress enough how important testing is for you. If anyone in your family has a history of colon cancer make sure you let your doctor know.

Remember – screening guidelines only relate to people who have no signs or symptoms. If you have symptoms, like blood in your stool, changes in your bowel habits or abdominal pain, these may be signs of colon cancer and you should see your doctor right away.

How often should I get screened?

For colonoscopy, it’s once every 10 years starting at age 50, unless your doctor recommends more often. The FIT test is an annual test starting at age 50.

If you have a positive FIT test, then your doctor will recommend you have a colonoscopy.

Don’t wait until you have symptoms to get screened. You can have the disease and not even know it.  It’s always better to get tested before you have symptoms.

Stay on top of your health

As you get older, you have more health concerns. Your doctor has a lot to talk to you about and may not get around to discussing colon cancer screening. If your doctor doesn’t mention getting tested for colon cancer, bring it up.

You owe it to yourself, and the people who love you, to take care of yourself.  

To learn more about prevention and early detection of colon cancer you can call the American Cancer Society at 800-227-2345 or visit our website.