Making sense of colorectal cancer screening

colon model

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month and a great reminder to talk to your provider about colorectal cancer screening options. Despite being the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the US, colorectal cancer is actually preventable through proper screening.

Who should get screened?

In 2018, the American Cancer Society lowered the recommended screening age for people at average risk (no personal or family history) from 50 to 45. Other criteria include anyone with the following:

  • A personal history of colorectal polyps
  • A personal history of colorectal cancer
  • A family history of colorectal cancer or polyps
  • Inflammatory bowel disease

What are the options and how often?

For individuals who are at average risk for colorectal cancer, there are several ways to screen for it, including at-home test kits that can be mailed back to a lab or provider’s office.

Talk to your primary care provider to see which test will be best for you depending on your personal risk. Doctors recommend that anyone at average risk who is at least 45 years old have one of the following:

  • A yearly high sensitivity fecal occult blood test (FOBT) such as FIT or Hemocult II Sensa stool sample test
  • A flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years, or every 10 years with a yearly FIT/FOBT 
  • A colonoscopy every 10 years (if normal exam)
  • A stool DNA test every 3 years
  • A virtual colonoscopy (CTC) every 5 years

A colonoscopy should be done if any test other than a colonoscopy is positive.

Anyone at increased risk (people with a personal or family history of colorectal cancer or polyps) should have a colonoscopy either beginning at age 40 or 10 years before the age of the youngest relative at time of diagnosis (whichever comes first), then every 5 years depending on test results, such as polyps.

Not sure where you fit in? Your provider or a Nurse Navigator can help you sort through the screening options and set you up on the right track for you.

Colorectal cancer is one of the few cancers that is actually preventable. Researchers at Dartmouth Cancer Center are inventing new technology that helps pathologists more accurately classify colorectal polyps found during screening colonoscopies. The polyps can be easily removed during the colonoscopy before they become cancerous.

How to get screened

Because it is such a common procedure, almost all insurance companies cover the cost of a colonoscopy. However, be sure to check with your insurance company before your screening test to make sure it is covered.

Dartmouth Cancer Center partners with several endoscopy centers throughout New Hampshire. Access to endoscopy and home test kits are also available at our many locations, member hospitals and affiliates throughout New Hampshire and Vermont.

For example, the colon cancer screening navigator at the Dartmouth Health system’s newest member, Southwestern Vermont Medical Center (SVMC), can connect you with their endoscopy team. They answer common questions about what to expect before, during and after colonoscopy, and colorectal cancer prevention through screening.

Lower your risk

In addition to having regular screenings, there are other ways to keep you healthy and lower the risk of colorectal cancer:

  • It is extremely important to avoid smoking
  • Eat a high-fiber, low-fat diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • Lose weight if you are overweight
  • Keep to a regular exercise program. This can be as simple as taking a walk three times a week.
  • Talk with your provider about vitamins or medications that may help keep you healthy and prevent colorectal cancer

Other resources

Dartmouth Cancer Center offers a wealth of resources from fact sheets to appointment scheduling help.