RubmdHealth TipColon Cancer Screening: Understanding the Why, When, and How

Colon Cancer Screening: Understanding the Why, When, and How

Colon cancer, one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths worldwide, has seen significant advancements in prevention and early detection through screening. As we delve into the essential aspects of colon cancer screening, it’s vital to remember that early detection can save lives. Let’s explore the significance, methodologies and benefits of this life-saving procedure.

The Importance of Colon Cancer Screening

Colon cancer often starts as small, noncancerous clumps of cells known as polyps. Over time, some of these polyps can turn malignant. Regular screening can identify and remove these polyps, drastically reducing the risk of developing the disease.

Different Screening Methods

1. Fecal Occult Blood Testing (FOBT) and Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT)

Both these tests are non-invasive screening methods primarily used for the early detection of colon cancer. Both tests identify minuscule amounts of blood in the stool, which might be indicative of cancer or sizable polyps. While FOBT relies on chemical reactions to detect blood, FIT employs antibodies to identify human hemoglobin protein in the stool. Due to their simplicity and non-invasiveness, these tests are recommended annually for individuals within the age bracket for colon cancer screening.

2. Colonoscopy

A colonoscopy is an in-depth diagnostic procedure employed to examine the entire length of the colon and rectum. Utilizing a thin, flexible tube equipped with a camera, known as a colonoscope, physicians can inspect the inner lining for any abnormalities, such as polyps or tumors. Beyond mere observation, a colonoscopy allows for immediate removal of polyps and biopsy of suspicious areas, making it an essential tool not only for the detection but also for the prevention of colon cancer.

3. Sigmoidoscopy

Sigmoidoscopy is a diagnostic procedure similar to a colonoscopy but focuses on inspecting only the lower part of the colon, specifically the sigmoid colon. A slender, flexible instrument called a sigmoidoscope is inserted into the rectum to visualize the interior lining. While less invasive and requiring less preparation than a colonoscopy, it’s limited scope means it may miss abnormalities in the upper parts of the colon. Nonetheless, it serves as an effective tool for detecting changes or abnormalities in the lower third of the colon.

4. CT Colonography (Virtual Colonoscopy)

CT Colonography, often referred to as a “virtual colonoscopy,” is a radiological procedure that employs computed tomography (CT) scanning to generate detailed images of the entire colon and rectum. This non-invasive method allows for visualization of polyps or growths without the insertion of a scope. While it offers a more comfortable and quicker alternative to a traditional colonoscopy, it doesn’t allow for the immediate removal of polyps. If abnormalities are detected, a conventional colonoscopy may still be required for polyp removal or biopsy.

When to Begin Colon Cancer Screening

Deciding on the optimal time to start colon cancer screening hinges largely on individual risk factors. For the average-risk population, it is generally recommended to commence regular screenings at age 45 to 50. However, those with a pronounced family history of colon cancer or other associated conditions may need to begin much earlier. Genetic predispositions, such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or Lynch syndrome, also necessitate earlier and more frequent screenings. Moreover, individuals with conditions like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis may be advised to start screenings sooner due to their heightened risk. It’s imperative to consult with a healthcare professional to establish a tailored screening timeline based on one’s unique health profile and family history.

The Benefits of Early Detection

1. Improved Survival Rates

Detecting and treating colon cancer in it’s early stages can result in a survival rate of over 90%. Early detection truly does save lives.

2. Reduced Medical Costs

Preventing cancer or catching it early may significantly reduce the costs related to treatment compared to treating advanced stages of the disease.

3. Peace of Mind

Regular screenings provide reassurance. Knowing that you’re taking proactive measures to safeguard your health can offer immense mental and emotional relief.

Age and Colon Cancer

Age is a pivotal factor when it comes to the risk of developing colon cancer. While the disease can manifest in younger individuals, the majority of cases are diagnosed in people over the age of 50. As we age, the cumulative exposure to various environmental and genetic factors increases, elevating the risk of cellular changes that can lead to polyps and, eventually, cancer. Thus, with advancing age, regular monitoring and screening become even more paramount. It’s noteworthy that the recommendation for colon cancer screening initiation is often aligned with this age-related risk, emphasizing the importance of early detection in older populations. However, recent trends have shown a slight uptick in cases among younger adults, underscoring the need for awareness and timely medical consultations irrespective of age.

Family History and Genetic Predispositions

Having a family history of colon cancer significantly amplifies an individual’s risk of developing the disease. When immediate family members, such as parents, siblings, or children, have been diagnosed with colon cancer, the likelihood of one encountering the same condition rises, especially if the relative was diagnosed at a young age. Beyond family history, specific genetic mutations can predispose individuals to colon cancer. Syndromes like familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) and Lynch syndrome, formerly known as hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC), are prime examples. These genetic conditions increase the propensity for cancer development, often at much younger ages than typically observed. Individuals with these genetic markers or a strong family history are often counseled to undergo screenings earlier and more frequently to ensure early detection and timely intervention. It’s crucial for people to be aware of their family medical history and consult healthcare professionals for personalized screening recommendations.

Dietary Habits and Lifestyle

Diets high in red or processed meats have been linked to an increased risk of colon cancer. On the contrary, diets rich in vegetables, fruits and whole grains provide protective benefits against the disease. Other lifestyle-related factors include excessive alcohol consumption and tobacco use.

Reducing Risks Beyond Screening

While screening plays a crucial role in early detection, lifestyle changes can further reduce the risk of colon cancer. This includes a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, regular exercise, limited alcohol intake and abstaining from smoking.


Is colon cancer treatable?

Yes, especially when detected early. Treatments may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or targeted drug therapy. The approach depends on the cancer’s stage and location.

Can diet and lifestyle affect my risk of developing colon cancer?

Absolutely. Diets high in red and processed meats can increase the risk, while diets rich in vegetables, fruits and whole grains can decrease the risk. Regular exercise, avoiding tobacco and moderating alcohol intake can also influence your risk.

Are there other screening options besides colonoscopy?

Yes. There are non-invasive tests like the Fecal Occult Blood Testing (FOBT), Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) and CT Colonography (Virtual Colonoscopy). Discuss with your healthcare provider to determine the best screening option for you.

If I have polyps, does that mean I have or will get colon cancer?

Not all polyps are cancerous. However, certain types of polyps, known as adenomas, have the potential to become cancer. Removing these polyps during a colonoscopy can prevent the development of colon cancer.

Can colon cancer spread to other parts of the body?

Yes, like other cancers, colon cancer can metastasize. It most commonly spreads to the liver, but it can also reach the lungs, peritoneum and other organs.

Is there a genetic test to determine my risk of colon cancer?

There are genetic tests available for syndromes like Lynch syndrome and familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) that increase colon cancer risk. If you have a strong family history, discuss with your doctor about potential genetic counseling and testing.

How can I reduce my risk of colon cancer?

Regular screenings, a balanced diet, avoiding tobacco, moderating alcohol consumption, staying physically active and being aware of your family history are key strategies to mitigate the risk.

Are there support groups for individuals diagnosed with colon cancer?

Yes, many organizations offer support groups, counseling and other resources for patients and their families. It’s beneficial to connect with such groups for emotional support and to share experiences.


Colon cancer screening, without a doubt, is a crucial aspect of preventive healthcare. As we’ve outlined, its benefits are manifold, ranging from early detection to peace of mind. In the battle against colon cancer, knowledge and proactive measures are our strongest allies.

Dr. Kishore Kumar (General Surgeon)
Dr. Kishore Kumar (General Surgeon)
Dr. Kishore Kumar is a General Surgeon, Proctologist, Vascular Surgeon, Laparoscopic Surgeon and Laser Specialist,

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