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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:
While some people may develop these symptoms, they often only become noticeable as the cancer gets worse and becomes harder to treat. Screening before symptoms are present is the only way to diagnose the cancer early enough to more successfully treat it and prevent complications.
Colonoscopy is the most common preventive screening tool. It is also the most effective screening test for colon cancer.
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 since you're asleep during the procedure, it doesn't cause most people discomfort, and it takes less than an hour.
Other screening options are available, but they are not as effective as colonoscopy. You can ask your doctor about these options:
If one of these tests detects a problem, your doctor will likely recommend a diagnostic colonoscopy. Learn about the difference between preventive screening colonoscopies and diagnostic colonoscopies.
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, 2023
Interesting reading this article. I recently had a colonoscopy with the understanding it was a preventative screening and would be covered by insurance. They found one small benign polyp, and I was surprised to find out that insurance won't cover the entire procedure if they find a polyp. This was a procedure that I had not planned on paying for, and I most certainly won't be able to afford a screening again. That is something the doctor, hospital or insurance failed to explain to me. This will be a huge deterrent for many people who can't afford to get screened regularly.
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