Article: Colorectal Cancer Screening

What is screening?

Screening is looking for cancer before a person has any symptoms. This can help find cancer at an early stage. When abnormal tissue or cancer is found early, it may be easier to treat. By the time symptoms appear, cancer may have begun to spread.

Scientists are trying to better understand which people are more likely to get certain types of cancer. They also study the things we do and the things around us to see if they cause cancer. This information helps doctors recommend who should be screened for cancer, which screening tests should be used, and how often the tests should be done.

It is important to remember that your doctor does not necessarily think you have cancer if he or she suggests a screening test. Screening tests are given when you have no cancer symptoms. Screening tests may be repeated on a regular basis.

If a screening test result is abnormal, you may need to have more tests done to find out if you have cancer. These are called diagnostic tests.

Refer to the following PDQ summaries for information about prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of colorectal cancer:

  • Prevention of Colorectal Cancer
  • Colon Cancer Treatment
  • Rectal Cancer Treatment

General Information About Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the colon or the rectum.

The colon and rectum are parts of the body's digestive system. The digestive system removes and processes nutrients (vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and water) from foods and helps pass waste material out of the body. The digestive system is made up of the mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, and the small and large intestines. The first 6 feet of the large intestine are called the large bowel or colon. The last 6 inches are the rectum and the anal canal. The anal canal ends at the anus (the opening of the large intestine to the outside of the body).

Cancer that begins in the colon is called colon cancer, and cancer that begins in the rectum is called rectal cancer. Cancer that begins in either of these organs may also be called colorectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of death from cancer in the United States.

In recent years (1995-1999), the number of people diagnosed with colorectal cancer has stayed about the same, but the number of people who die from colorectal cancer has decreased. Colorectal cancer is found more often in men than in women.

Age and health history can affect the risk of developing colon cancer.

Anything that increases a person's chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Risk factors for colorectal cancer include the following:

  • Being older than 50 years of age.
  • Having a personal history of any of the following:
    • Colorectal cancer or adenomas.
    • Cancer of the ovary, endometrium, or breast.
    • Ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease.
  • Having a parent, brother, sister, or child with colorectal cancer or adenomas.
  • Having certain hereditary conditions, such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) and hereditary nonpolyposis colon cancer (HNPCC; Lynch Syndrome).

Refer to the PDQ summary on Genetics of Colorectal Cancer for more information about family history and colorectal cancer screening.

Tests are used to screen for different types of cancer.

Some screening tests are used because they have been shown to be helpful both in finding cancers early and decreasing the chance of dying from these cancers. Other tests are used because they have been shown to find cancer in some people; it is not yet known if use of these tests will decrease the risk of dying from cancer.

Scientists study screening tests to find those with the fewest risks and most benefits. Cancer screening trials also are meant to show whether early detection (finding cancer before it causes symptoms) decreases a person's chance of dying from the disease. For some types of cancer, finding and treating the disease at an early stage may result in a better chance of recovery.

Clinical trials that study cancer screening methods are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Cancer.gov Web site.

Five tests are commonly used to screen for colorectal cancer:

Fecal occult blood test

A fecal occult blood test (FOBT) checks stool (solid waste) for blood that can only be seen with a microscope. Small samples of stool are placed on special cards and returned to the doctor or laboratory for testing. Blood in the stool may be a sign of polyps or cancer.

Sigmoidoscopy

Sigmoidoscopy is a procedure to look inside the rectum and sigmoid (lower) colon for polyps, abnormal areas, or cancer. A sigmoidoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted through the rectum into the sigmoid colon. Polyps or tissue samples may be taken for biopsy. A sigmoidoscopy and a digital rectal exam (DRE) may be used together to screen for colorectal cancer.

Barium enema

A barium enema (BE) is a series of x-rays of the lower gastrointestinal tract. A liquid that contains barium (a silver-white metallic compound) is put into the rectum. The barium coats the lower gastrointestinal tract and x-rays are taken. This procedure is also called a lower GI series.

Colonoscopy

Colonoscopy is a procedure to look inside the rectum and colon for polyps, abnormal areas, or cancer. A colonoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted through the rectum into the colon. Polyps or tissue samples may be taken for biopsy.

Digital rectal exam

A digital rectal exam (DRE) is an exam of the rectum. The doctor or nurse inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into the rectum to feel for lumps or abnormal areas.

Other screening tests are being studied in clinical trials.

Virtual colonoscopy

Virtual colonoscopy is a procedure that uses a series of x-rays called computed tomography to make a series of pictures of the colon. A computer puts the pictures together to create detailed images that may show polyps and anything else that seems unusual on the inside surface of the colon. This test is also called colonography or CT colonography. Clinical trials are comparing virtual colonoscopy with commonly used colorectal cancer screening tests.

DNA stool test

This test checks DNA in stool cells for genetic changes that may be a sign of colorectal cancer.

Screening clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Cancer.gov Web site.

Risks of Colorectal Cancer Screening

Screening tests have risks.

Decisions about screening tests can be difficult. Not all screening tests are helpful and most have risks. Before having any screening test, you may want to discuss the test with your doctor. It is important to know the risks of the test and whether it has been proven to reduce the risk of dying from cancer.

The risks of colorectal cancer screening tests include the following:

Damage to the colon can occur.

Infection or tears in the lining of the colon can result from sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy, or the removal of polyps found by screening.

False-negative test results can occur.

Screening test results may appear to be normal even though colorectal cancer is present. A person who receives a false-negative test result (one that shows there is no cancer when there really is) may delay seeking medical care for symptoms.

False-positive test results can occur.

Screening test results may appear to be abnormal even though no cancer is present. A false-positive test result (one that shows there is cancer when there really isn't) can cause anxiety and is usually followed by more tests (such as biopsy), which also have risks.

Your doctor can advise you about your risk for colorectal cancer and your need for screening tests.

Changes to This Summary (03/23/2004)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Editorial changes were made to this summary.

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PDQ also contains information on clinical trials.

People who are at high risk for a certain type of cancer may want to take part in a clinical trial. A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether a method of finding cancer earlier can help people to live longer. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients and those who are at risk for cancer. During screening clinical trials, information is collected about screening methods, the risks involved, and how well they do or do not work. If a clinical trial shows that a new method is better than one currently being used, the new method may become "standard."

Listings of clinical trials are included in PDQ and are available online at Cancer.gov. Descriptions of the trials are available in health professional and patient versions. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237); TTY at 1-800-332-8615.


Source: National Cancer Institute
Cache Date: December 10, 2004