Colorectal Cancer Screening

Colorectal (colon) cancer usually develops from abnormal growths, known as polyps, in the colon or rectum. Colorectal cancer screening tests can find polyps and remove them before they turn into cancer. Polyps are common and are usually harmless. However, because most colorectal cancer begins as a polyp, removing polyps early is a good way to prevent cancer. Screening tests can also find colorectal cancer early when it is easier to treat.

What are the symptoms of colorectal cancer?

Early on, colorectal cancer may not cause symptoms. A person could have colon or rectal cancer and not know it. If there are symptoms, they can include:

  • Blood in or on your stool (bowel movements)
  • Aches, pains or cramps in your stomach that do not go away
  • Change in bowel movement habits, either constipation or diarrhea
  • Losing weight and you don't know why

If you have any of these symptoms you should talk to your health care provider. These symptoms may be caused by something else, but the only way to know for sure is to see your health care provider.

Who should be screened for colorectal cancer?

If you are age 45 or older, you should get screened for colorectal cancer. Regular testing increases the chance of stopping colorectal cancer before it starts or finding it early when treatment may be most effective.

Adults younger than age 45 should talk to their health care provider about their risk for colorectal cancer and when to start screening. If you or someone in your family has had colorectal cancer or certain other conditions, you may need to start testing at an earlier age compared to other adults without such risk factors.

Talk to your health care provider about when you should start getting tested.

What are the screening tests for colorectal cancer?

There are several different tests that screen for colorectal cancer, including stool-based tests that can be done in the comfort and safety of your own home. The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends the following tests for colorectal cancer screening:

  • High-Sensitivity Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) or Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT)
    The FOBT and FIT are stool tests done at home with a test kit you get from your health care provider. For this test, you collect a sample of your bowel movement and return the test to your health care provider or a lab where they will check your stool sample for blood. This test should be done once a year.
  • FIT-DNA test (also called stool DNA test)
    The FIT-DNA is a stool test done at home. The test combines the FIT (described above) with a test that finds changed DNA in the stool. For this test, you collect an entire bowel movement and send it to a lab, where it is checked for cancer cells. It is done once every one or three years.
  • Flexible Sigmoidoscopy
    Flexible sigmoidoscopy allows your health care provider to check the rectum and lower part of the colon for polyps and cancer using a thin, flexible, lighted tube. This test should be done once every 5 years, or every 10 years with a FIT every year. This test may be done more often if recommended by your health care provider.
  • Colonoscopy
    Colonoscopy is like the flexible sigmoidoscopy except the health care provider uses a longer, thin flexible, lighted tube to check for polyps or cancer inside the entire colon and rectum. During the test, the health care provider can find and remove most polyps and some cancers. This test should be done once every 10 years, or more often if recommended by your health care provider.

Talk to your health care provider about your screening options to find the test best for you. For more information about these and other cancer screening tests, visit the CDC website.

Where can I go for FREE colorectal cancer screening?

Free colorectal cancer screening tests are available for eligible, uninsured and underinsured New York residents through the New York State Cancer Services Program. To get more information or to be connected to a Cancer Services Program near you, please call 1-866-442-CANCER or visit the Cancer Services Program website.

Can I get treatment for colorectal cancer if I don't have insurance?

People in need of treatment for colorectal cancer may be eligible for coverage through the New York State Medicaid Cancer Treatment Program (NYS MCTP). Coverage lasts for the entire time you are being treated and includes medications.

To learn if you are eligible for this program or to get more information, visit the NYS MCTP website.