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Screenings can catch it early when it’s treatable.
The growing number of people getting preventive screenings has brought the colorectal cancer death rates down, showing that screening really does work.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommend that everyone 45 to 75 years old get a screening. Most health plans cover this type of preventive screening with no out-of-pocket costs when you go to your primary care provider or medical group (for HMOs) or a doctor or medical center in your plan’s network (non-HMO plans).*
If you have a family history of colon cancer or have other conditions that could lead to colon cancer, your doctor may want you to start getting tested earlier than age 45. Keep in mind that a family history or other conditions may mean that your test is not considered a preventive screening. It could be considered a diagnostic test. That means you may have out-of-pocket costs for your test.
Talk to your doctor about when to start colon cancer screening and how often to get tested.
Colon cancer usually begins with a growth called a polyp that develops in the inner lining of the colon. These polyps grow slowly over a period of many years. When polyps first start to develop, they are not cancer yet, but they have the potential to become cancer. The risk that a polyp will become cancerous increases as it gets larger.
Polyps can be removed easily before they have a chance to become cancer. Once a polyp does become cancer, it gets more difficult to treat.
Precancerous polyps and early colon cancer may not show symptoms. A screening test is the best way to prevent colon cancer or catch it early for a better chance at successful treatment.
Since early colon cancer may not have any symptoms, screening is critical. By the time you develop symptoms, it may have grown and spread, making it harder to treat.
But there are some warning signs you can watch for, including:
Colonoscopy is the most common preventive screening tool. A doctor uses a colonoscope — a flexible, lighted tube with an attached camera — to look at the entire rectum and colon for signs of cancer. The doctor can even remove precancerous polyps during the procedure, preventing you from getting cancer.
Some people may avoid a colonoscopy because it sounds painful. But the test is quick and painless. You are asleep during the procedure, and it takes less than an hour.
Other screening options are available, based on your doctor’s recommendation:
Early detection by screening is key. Catching it early gives you a better chance at successful treatment. Talk to your doctor about what screening options are best for you.
These healthy lifestyle tips may help to protect you from colon cancer:
Learn more about colon health and colon cancer prevention and screening in the Caring for Your Colon section.
Originally published 2/12/2020; Revised 2020, 2022
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