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Colon Cancer Screening

Q: What are the guidelines for colon cancer screening?

Dr. Donnica:
Colon cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in Americans:  yet this is often a preventable or curable disease when discovered early.  There are several different kinds of screening tests.  They are:

  1. Rectal Exam:  Recommended for all adults annually.  The doctor inserts a gloved finger into the rectum to feel anything abnormal.

  2. Fecal Occult Blood Test:  This is done to find occult or "hidden" blood in the stool.  This can be done at home using cards to send in to your doctor or in the doctor's office in conjunction with a rectal exam.  This test should be done annually.

  3. Flexible Sigmoidoscopy:  This is an office-based procedure in which a thin, lit tube called a sigmoidoscope is inserted through the rectum into the lower part of the colon (large intestine) called the sigmoid colon.  This is where the majority of colon abnormalities are found.  Using this scope, your doctor can look for polyps, early cancers or other abnormalities.  The American Cancer Society recommends this test every 5 years for adults over 50.

  4. Colonoscopy:  This scope is similar to a sigmoidoscope, but much longer--it allows your doctor to view the entire colon, whereas the sigmoidoscope can view only half.  Since this procedure takes longer, light anesthesia is usually given.  The American Cancer Society recommends this procedure for all adults over age 50 every 10 years.  While this is the gold standard screening procedure, it requires more time to perform this exam than a colonoscopy, it requires sedation, it carries greater risks, and it is more expensive.  It also requires specialized training. 

Given your family history or other risk factors, your doctor may recommend more frequent or earlier screening.  It's important to ask:  when colon cancer is detected early, 9 out of 10 patients have an excellent chance of survival.

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Created: 12/18/2000  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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