Colorectal cancer is the third most common cause of cancer deaths in the United States. The lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is 1 in 23 for men and 1 in 26 for women. However, when caught early, colorectal cancer is 90% treatable.
Dr. Nicholas Battista, a specialist in gastroenterology at Sanford Clinic in Bismarck, North Dakota, answers common questions around colorectal cancer, screening options and reasons to get screened.
What is colorectal cancer?
Colorectal cancer is a cancer of the large intestine (or colon) or the lower part of the digestive system. Rectal cancer is cancer of the last several inches of the colon. Together, these are referred to as colorectal cancers.
How does colorectal cancer start and spread?
Most colorectal cancers start as a growth on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. These growths are called polyps, which can become cancerous over time. Screening tests can find polyps, which can then be removed before turning into cancer.
Who should be screened for colorectal cancer?
Colorectal screenings are recommended for individuals starting at age 45. The risk of getting colorectal cancer increases as you age.
Other risk factors include:
- Age (45 or older)
- Ethnicity (Black, American Indian or Alaskan Native)
- Family history of colorectal cancer
- Sex (males are at a higher risk)
- Long-term smoking
- Unhealthy alcohol use
What are the symptoms of colorectal cancer?
Seventy-five percent of colorectal cancers occur with no symptoms. This is why regular screenings are so important. Screenings catch precancerous polyps and colorectal cancer early, when it’s easiest to treat.
Symptoms may include:
- Change in bowel habits
- Blood in or on your stool (bowel movement)
- Diarrhea, constipation or feeling that the bowel does not empty completely
- Abdominal pains, aches or cramps that don’t subside
- Unintentional weight loss
How can I prevent colorectal cancer?
In addition to regular screenings, other prevention measures you can take to focus on your health and decrease your risk of colorectal cancer include:
- Limit alcohol
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Eat fruits and vegetables
- Quit tobacco
- Exercise regularly
What screening options are available?
There are two main types of screenings for colorectal cancer: stool sample and colonoscopy.
A colonoscopy is the most accurate and efficient screening option available. During this procedure, a gastroenterologist uses a lighted scope with a camera to look at the colon and rectum to check for abnormal tissues and cells. If any growths, or “polyps” are found, they can be removed during the procedure before potentially developing into cancer (may include a biopsy if needed).
Colonoscopies are a covered procedure for most insurance companies for adults ages 45 and older and should be done every 10 years.
A stool test means you’ll collect a stool sample at home and submit it to the lab. It takes one to two weeks to get results back. If your results come back normal, you should get screened every one to three years depending on the test. If the results aren’t normal, you’ll need a colonoscopy.
Stool tests require no dietary restrictions or preparation and are covered by insurance in most cases.
Screening stool tests are an option for low-risk patients. Talk with your provider to see if it’s a good option for you.
Sanford Health offers these stool tests:
- Sanford Polymedco Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT). This lab test checks stool for blood, which can be an early indicator of colorectal cancer.
- Cologuard FIT DNA. Cologuard is a type of FIT-DNA test that checks stool samples for blood and cancer DNA biomarkers.
Talk to your provider about the screening test right for you.
To schedule your screening, visit sanfordhealth.org/colorectal-screenings.
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