You Have Options When It Comes to Screening for Colorectal Cancer

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Move over, colonoscopies. There are several good alternatives to screen for colon cancer, the third-most common cancer in men and women.

"With a colonoscopy, the major fears for most people are the prep and sedation," says gastroenterologist Gregory Cooper, MD. "They hear all these horror stories about what these involve."

In fact, the full bowel prep required for a colonoscopy is getting easier, Dr. Cooper says. For instance, there are prep kits that don't require you to drink as much fluid and many of the liquids are becoming more palatable.

Sedation is still standard practice during a colonoscopy, which is usually performed on an outpatient basis. The sedative helps relax you while the gastroenterologist uses a scope to examine your intestinal lining for growths and treats or removes them for further study. The growths, called polyps, can turn into cancer.

If you're not considered high-risk, you can wait 10 years between colonoscopies.

Alternatives to Colonoscopy

Although a colonoscopy is considered the gold standard for colon cancer screening, many hospitals, including University Hospitals, offer other alternatives, including:

  • Virtual colonoscopy – Also called a computer tomographic (CT) colonography, this procedure is done in the radiology department and uses a special CT scan to make a 3-D model of the colon. The radiologist views the 3-D images on a video monitor to look for polyps or masses. A bowel prep is needed beforehand, but the procedure itself requires no sedation or recovery time and typically takes 10 minutes to complete. If nothing is abnormal, screenings occur every 5 years.
  • Fecal immunochemical test (FIT) – This test checks for hidden blood in the stool, which can be a sign of precancerous polyps or colon cancer. For this test, you use a take-home kit, collect your stool according to the instructions, and return it to the lab. FIT doesn't require drug or dietary restrictions, but it must be done annually.
  • Stool DNA (sDNA) – With this at-home test, you collect your stool, add a buffer to it and ship it to a lab to analyze. The stool is checked for certain DNA mutations that could indicate colorectal cancer. Two sDNA benefits are its high detection rates of early-stage colon cancer and precancerous polyps. No special diet or bowel prep is required, and if nothing unusual is found, the test is done every three years.

Gregory Cooper, MD is a gastroenterologist and cancer prevention and control expert with UH Digestive Health Institute. You can request an appointment with Dr. Cooper or any other University Hospitals doctor online.

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