You may have heard that it is important to be screened for colon cancer, but what does that involve? Here's what you need to know about colon cancer screening.

What is colon cancer?

Colon cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the colon. The colon is the final part of the digestive system, and it's where wastes are eliminated from the body. Cancer can develop in any part of the colon, but it commonly starts in the section known as the rectum.

Most colon cancers develop slowly over time. They begin as a group of noncancerous cells called polyps. Over time, however, some of these polyps can become cancerous.

What are the symptoms of colon cancer?

In its early stages, colon cancer usually doesn't cause any symptoms. This is one of the reasons why screening is so important. As the cancer grows, it can start to block the passage of stool through the colon. This may cause a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement, even when you don't
  • Narrow stool
  • Blood in your stool
  • Abdominal pain, cramping, or bloating
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue

Additionally, colon cancer can sometimes spread to other parts of the body, causing new symptoms.

What is colon cancer screening?

Colon cancer screening is a way to find colon cancer early on when it is most treatable. There are several different types of screenings that can be used to detect colon cancer, including:

  • Fecal occult blood test. This test checks for traces of blood in your stool, which can be an early sign of cancer.
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy. This test uses a thin, flexible tube with a light and camera attached to it to look for polyps or cancer in the lower part of the colon.
  • Colonoscopy. This test is similar to a flexible sigmoidoscopy, but it allows the doctor to examine the entire length of the colon.
  • Virtual colonoscopy. This test uses a CT scan to create a 3D image of the inside of the colon.

Why is colon cancer screening important?

Screening tests can help find colon cancer at an early stage. When colon cancer is found early, it can often be treated successfully. That's why it's important to have regular screening tests to find the disease in its earliest stages.

Who should get a colon cancer screening?

The American Cancer Society recommends that people at average risk of colorectal cancer start regular screening at age 45. Some people may be at higher risk for the disease and may need to be screened earlier or more often. This includes people with a family history of colon cancer or certain inherited syndromes, as well as those who have had ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease.

Talk to a local doctor about when you should start getting colon cancer screening procedures.