Get Tested for Colon Cancer: Here's How
This free video explains the most commonly used screening methods, including test preparation, in simple language.
Narrator: If you're like most people, the thought of getting colon cancer or even going for a colon cancer test can be frightening to you. “What if they find something,” you're probably thinking, “Then what?”
Besides, colon cancer deals with a part of the body that’s, shall we say, not easy to talk about.
Well, the good news is that colon cancer can often be prevented or it can be found and removed before it has a chance to become a danger to you.
Colon cancer is cancer of the lining of the lower parts of the bowel called the colon and the rectum.
Colon cancer is one of the most common cancers.
Both women and men can have it.
And the chances of having it increase as you get older, climbing sharply at age 50 and continuing as you age.
Fortunately you do have the power to keep colon cancer out of your life.
Let me tell you how.
Most colon cancers start with a growth called a polyp. If you find and remove the polyp early, you can prevent cancer from even occurring.
If you miss the polyp stage but find colon cancer early, there's a very good chance of beating the cancer and going on with a normal life.
More good news: you have many choices of tests.
Some of the tests can prevent cancer altogether by finding polyps.
Others can save your life by finding cancer early.
Each test has advantages and disadvantages. The challenge to you is to pick one. Then act.
Let's take a quick look at the types of tests then discuss each in detail.
Tests that find cancer early:
These tests detect tiny amounts of blood or cells that are shed by large polyps or early cancer.
Fecal occult blood test
Fecal immunochemical test
Stool DNA test
Tests that prevent cancer:
These tests examine the lining of the colon: the area where pre-cancerous polyps and cancer itself begin to grow.
Your radiologist can examine the lining by filling the colon with air or with an x-ray blocking liquid and taking a special x-ray or performing a CT or cat scan that yields three-dimensional images.
Your physician can examine the lining of the bowel directly by looking through flexible instruments inserted through the anus.
First the simplest: tests that detect traces of blood or cancerous material, altered colon cell DNA, in your stools.
Your doctor will give you one of a variety of kits available on the market and instruct you how to collect a few samples of your stool, usually on multiple days, and return it to your doctor or send it in to the lab for testing.
It's as simple as that. These tests have all been shown to be effective at finding colon cancer but will miss many early polyps. They are good alternatives for patients who are not willing or not able to undergo the flexible instrument examinations or x-ray tests.
Now the tests that can prevent cancer by finding polyps: these tests examine the lining of the colon by looking with x-rays or with flexible instruments.
A common feature of all these tests is that you first undergo a prep: a preparation to ensure that the bowel is as empty as possible of stool. You’ll need to be on a clear liquid diet for one or two days.
The night before the procedure you may take a strong laxative which may be followed by a large amount of fluid. You may also need to give yourself an enema.
It all translates into a lot of time in the bathroom on the evening before the test but it's the only way your physician can be sure to examine every detail and not miss any abnormal growths.
Barium enema is an older type of x-ray examination but it is still used in a few places.
A newer more sophisticated approach to colon x-rays is CT colonography which is sometimes called virtual colonoscopy.
The radiologist fills your colon with air then scans it.
The advantages: the procedure takes only about 20 minutes, requires no sedation, does not involve insertion of any instruments deep into your colon, and leaves you ready to return to your normal activities.
The resulting images are a virtual trip through the entire length of your colon.
In expert hands, CTC finds most cancers and most large polyps: the kind that are most strongly linked to cancer.
The downside: CTC does miss many small polyps and if something is found that looks pre-cancerous or cancerous, you will need to have a colonoscopy to have it removed which often means another prep and another trip to the medical facility.
There are two types of flexible instruments. Shorter tubes can reach only the lower part of the colon. Longer tubes can examine the entire colon. In both tests the tube is inserted through your rectum.
A sigmoidoscopy can be done in the doctor's office using the shorter tube.
You may feel pressure and cramping as the tube is passed up your colon.
The exam will take about 20 minutes.
If anything unusual is found, the physician can take a sample and examine it for cancer. If a polyp is found, the physician can remove it.
Remember: removing a polyp will keep it from turning into cancer.
Colonoscopy uses a longer tube to take a look at the entire colon.
While some family doctors and internists perform colonoscopy, the test is more often done by a gastroenterologist or a surgeon in an operating room or a procedure room rather than in your doctor's office.
You'll probably be given medications to help you relax and maybe even go to sleep and wake up after the examination is over.
The downside of colonoscopy is that while the actual time in the procedure room is less than 30 minutes, you may be in the recovery room for another hour or so and you'll need a friend or relative to drive you home and take the rest of the day off.
And as with most medical procedures, there are risks involved including, rarely, perforation of the bowel.
But the unique advantage of colonoscopy is that it provides the most thorough look at the entire colon: every inch where a cancer or a polyp may lurk.
And if the physician finds a suspicious lesion, it can be removed right there and then.
Also, if nothing is found, you won't need another test for ten years.
The choice of test depends on what you're comfortable with and which tests are available.
Since removing polyps helps to prevent colon cancer, experts recommend that tests that have a high chance of finding both polyps and cancer should be used whenever possible.
If you have a family history of colon cancer or if you have certain medical conditions, a colonoscopy will usually be recommended.
Talk to your doctor about which tests are best for you.
Remember: most colon cancers can be prevented or treated successfully if they're found early enough.
So if you're 50 or older, make a decision and get tested.
The only wrong choice is not getting tested.
If you’d like more information, the American Cancer Society can help you.
Just call us anytime day or night at 1-800-ACS-2345.
We can tell you more about your testing choices, help you talk to your doctor, or just listen to your concerns.