Health Screening For Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal cancer is a leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, second only to lung cancer, as reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). Colorectal cancer develops when cells in the colon or rectum divide uncontrollably and form tumors, or masses. Diseased cells may destroy adjacent tissues and spread throughout the body (metastasize).

According to the U.S. National Cancer Institute (2008), over 53,000 people died from colorectal cancer in 2006 and more than 139,000 were diagnosed with the disease.

Why is Colorectal Cancer Health Screening Important?

Thanks to growing knowledge of how colorectal cancer develops, as well as progress in health screening and medical treatment, colorectal cancer is becoming a preventable disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010), if everyone aged 50 and over had regular colorectal cancer health screening tests, 60 percent of colorectal cancer deaths could be prevented.

Research indicates that colorectal cancer usually develops from precancerous polyps in the colon and rectum. With timely health screening, doctors can detect and remove these polyps before cancer develops.

If colorectal cancer is found, it’s much more treatable in its early stages.

Is Colorectal Cancer Health Screening Right for Me?

Colorectal cancer affects people of all races and ethnic backgrounds, and strikes men and women almost equally. This cancer is most common after age 50, which is why the American Cancer Society (2010) recommends regular health screening starting at age 50.

However, if you have any of the following risk factors, consider discussing earlier health screening with your doctor:

  • Family history of colorectal cancer or severe problems with polyps
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Previous colorectal cancer, or ovarian, uterine or breast cancer.

How Does Colorectal Cancer Health Screening Work?

The recommended health screening frequency for colorectal cancer depends on both risk factors and prior test results. Most people need to be screened once every five to ten years.

Your physician may recommend one of the following tests:

  • Colonoscopy: This is the most sensitive test, which examines the entire colon and rectum and can remove and biopsy potential cancer.
  • Digital rectal exam: Often part of a physical, this test only checks the rectum and for prostate enlargement in men.
  • Double contrast barium enema: For this test, X-rays are used to study the colon.
  • Fecal occult blood test: This test checks for hidden blood—a potential sign of cancer—in the stool.
  • Sigmoidoscopy: A sigmoidoscopy examines the rectum and lower colon.
  • Virtual colonoscopy: Less invasive than a colonoscopy, this health screening uses computer-assembled X-ray images of the colon.

After Colorectal Cancer Health Screening

If health screening indicates abnormalities, follow-up steps depend on the test you had. For example, if a fecal occult blood test is positive, your doctor might order a colonoscopy. If you have a colonoscopy and the doctor removes polyps, you may be advised to schedule a follow-up screening in three years, rather than ten. If your physician detects colorectal cancer, she’ll work with you to manage the disease.


American Cancer Society. (2010). Can colorectal polyps and cancer be found early? Retrieved October 25, 2010, from

Center for Disease Control. (2010). Colorectal (colon) cancer. Retrieved October 25, 2010, from

Life Line Screening. (n.d.). Colon cancer screening at home. Retrieved October 25, 2010, from

National Cancer Institute. (2008). Colorectal cancer screening. Retrieved October 24, 2010, from