Colorectal cancer (combined colon and rectal cancer) is the third most common cancer in both men and women in the United States. Most colorectal cancer cases happen in people over the age of 50, but according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), cases in adults younger than 50 are on the rise.
This news, along with a recent study estimating that colorectal cancer will be the leading cause of cancer-related deaths by 2030, led to a lowering of the recommended colorectal screening age for men and women. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) now recommends that colorectal cancer screenings start at 45, instead of the previously recommended screening age of 50.
“Colorectal cancer is preventable. It’s treatable and it’s curable if it’s found early on,” said Jagrati Mathur, MD, a Gastroenterologist with Dignity Health Medical Group — Saint Francis/St. Mary’s. “Screening is incredibly important in order to detect early cancers and it can change the natural course of the disease.”
Several factors determine when you should begin getting a colorectal cancer screening including family history, age, and race. African Americans are 20% more likely to develop colorectal cancer than white Americans, and should be especially adamant about getting screened at age 45 or earlier.
The American College of Gastroenterology also recommends early screening if any of the following scenarios apply to you.
- If you have a family history of colorectal cancer or high risk polyps, you should get screened at 40 years old, or 10 years before the age of the youngest person in your immediate family with a history of colon cancer or high risk polyps.
- If you have a genetic link to colorectal cancer such as Lynch Syndrome or Familial Adenomyosis Polyposis, you should get your first screening in your early 20s.
- If you have a personal history of breast or endometrial cancer, get screened before age 45.
- If you have inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, get screened before age 45.
It is so important to get a colorectal screening at the recommended time because colorectal cancer in its early stages often does not have any noticeable symptoms. If you are experiencing blood in your stool, pencil thin stools or unintentional weight loss, talk to your doctor immediately, no matter what your age is.
A Colonoscopy Could Save Your Life
By far, the most common method of screening for colorectal cancer is a colonoscopy. Getting a colonoscopy has a reputation for being uncomfortable and even slightly embarrassing, but ultimately it is a short, life-saving procedure. A colonoscopy only lasts about 25 to 30 minutes, and patients are sedated for most of it.
Other types of screenings for colorectal cancer include a fecal immunochemical test (FIT) that checks for blood in the stool and a fecal DNA test (Cologuard) that identifies abnormal DNA in the stool associated with colon cancer or colon polyps. If these tests are positive, you will need to then have a diagnostic colonoscopy. The type of screening that is most appropriate will vary from person to person so be sure to talk to your doctor about what is right for you. No matter the testing method, Dr. Mathur stresses the importance of these preventative screenings.
“Prevention is the cure, so when we detect issues early, we can deal with them head-on,” said Dr. Mathur.
Talk with your doctor to schedule a colorectal screening, and remember to report any gut-related concerns you have to your doctor during your next visit — it could save your life.