State Health Officer
Get Screened for Colorectal Cancer
Did you know that colorectal cancer is the most preventable, yet least prevented cancer?
Colorectal cancer can affect anyone, including you. It is the second leading cancer killer in Alabama. Research suggests that more than half of all cases could be prevented by finding and treating it early. Colon cancer is different because it is a slow growing disease that can take anywhere from 8 to 10 years to develop. Most often it starts as an abnormal growth, called a polyp, on the inside walls of the colon or rectum, but can spread to other organs if left untreated. If a polyp is found early through screening, it can be removed, preventing cancer.
There are two types of colon cancer screenings, the stool based test (FIT take-home test) and a visual exam (colonoscopy). Although the FIT test is less invasive, it should be completed every year, while the colonoscopy is typically done every 10 years, but may be needed more frequently in high- risk individuals. It is important that you do not wait for symptoms to appear before you are screened, because cancer is harder to treat and cure if it is more advanced. Screening is recommended for anyone 50 or older and for African Americans beginning at age 45.
The FIT take-home test may be right for for you if you experience one or more of the following barriers to colonoscopy: time, transportation, lack of health insurance, lack of willingness to be screened by colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy, and limited availability of doctors and testing facilities. The FIT test detects hidden blood only in the lower bowel. This test reacts to part of the human hemoglobin protein found in red blood cells and has very few false positives, resulting in fewer unnecessary colonoscopies.
The FIT is an easy way to be tested for colorectal cancer because:
- You can do it privately at home;
- You do not need to change eating habits or medications;
- You do not have liquids to drink;
- You do not need to take time off from work; and
- You can mail it back to the doctor in a few days.
If test results are positive, a colonoscopy is performed using a scope to check the entire colon for abnormalities like polyps or cancer.
If you have an increased risk of getting colorectal cancer, you should talk to your doctor about when to begin screening, which test is right for you, and how often to be tested. The risks for colorectal cancer include:
- Older age
- Personal/family history of polyps or colon cancer
- Personal history of inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease)
- Inherited syndrome (Lynch Syndrome)
- African American
- Type 2 diabetes
Some studies suggest that the risks of developing colorectal cancer can be reduced by increasing physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight and diet, avoiding tobacco, and limiting alcohol consumption. However, screening is always the best prevention, because colon cancer can be cured when found and treated early.
Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer
Page last updated: April 1, 2019