What is a Colon Cancer Screening?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 17 January 2019
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Colon cancer screening is medical testing which is performed to look for the early signs of colon cancer, so that the cancer can be caught quickly if it does emerge. Colorectal cancer is much more treatable if it is caught early, and routine colon cancer screening may be recommended for people who are at an increased risk of developing colon cancer. There are a number of techniques which can be used to assess the health of the colon and to check for early signs of abnormal cell growth.

The colonoscopy, a test in which a camera is inserted into the colon so that the doctor can visualize the area, is a famous form of colon cancer screening. In a less invasive test called flexible sigmoidoscopy, only the lower portion of the colon is examined with a flexible camera. Both tests can be uncomfortable, and patients are often given anti-anxiety drugs to help them relax before the procedure.

Another common form of colon cancer screening is a digital rectal exam, in which a doctor dons a glove and palpates the area around the rectum to check for signs of polyps and abnormal growth. This exam is also used to check for prostate cancer in men. Fecal tests can be used to check for signs of blood in the stool, an indicator that there are lesions in the cancer, and for genetic material associated with colon polyps, an early sign of colorectal cancer.


Colon cancer screening can also be accomplished with medical imaging. In a barium x-ray, the patient is given barium, a substance which shows up as opaque on an x-ray. Areas of irregularity can be a sign that there is a problem with the colon. Computed axial tomography (CAT) technology can also be used in colon cancer screening for a “virtual colonoscopy,” in which the area of interest is imaged from outside the body.

If screening does reveal a suspected irregularity, the doctor may request a biopsy of the region to learn more about it. In the event that the biopsy does reveal cancer cells, a treatment plan can be developed to aggressively attack the cancer before it has an opportunity to spread.

Older people are at increased risk for colon cancer, as are people with a family history of this cancer, and people with a history of colon polyps. Colon cancer screening may also be recommended for people with diet and exercise patterns which are linked with an increased risk of colon cancer. While the tests used to check for colon cancer are sometimes very unpleasant, colon cancer is even worse, and the testing is well worth the discomfort.



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