Colorectal Cancer Screenings

Screenings can detect signs of colon cancer before you notice symptoms. And, the earlier you find cancer, the easier it is to treat. 

When Should I Get a Screening?

In most cases, you should start getting screened at age 45.* But if you have a personal or family history of colorectal cancer or polyps, you may need to begin screening earlier. Talk to your primary care doctor about the best screening plan for you.

*The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening for colorectal cancer starting at age 45. Most insurance covers screenings beginning at age 50. Contact your insurance carrier for more information about your coverage.

Digestive Health: Colon Cancer Screening Video Transcript


Teal and blue background. The Essentia Health logo appears, consisting of three leaves in a circle. Text, Essentia Health. Erin Thackeray, M. D. Gastroenterologist.

ERIN THACKERAY: To help reduce colon cancer, someone's risk of colon cancer, a healthy diet, especially high in fiber, avoiding things like smoking and heavy alcohol use, and getting plenty of exercise. Plus in somebody who's considered high risk, so maybe a family history of colon cancer, they've had polyps themselves, an aspirin is now recommended in those individuals. But because aspirin does have some risk, we recommend that they talk with their primary care providers before starting that. So there are several options for colorectal cancer screening, and we say the best test is a test that gets done. So I'd recommend that people talk with their primary care providers because colonoscopy is still the gold standard, but it's just one of the recommended options. There are some stool tests that patients can complete at home and send in, and one of them looks for blood in the struggle and the other looks for both blood and abnormal DNA markers that can be shed into the stool from colon polyps or colon cancer. So both of those would be at-home options for somebody who doesn't want to complete a colonoscopy. Or there's CT colonography, which is a special CT scan that's done to look and identify precancerous lesions on the colon.


A colonoscopy is the most effective colorectal cancer screening. This test uses a thin, lighted tube with a video camera to look for polyps in your large intestine and rectum. Your doctor can remove polyps during the procedure to test them for cancer. You’ll be sedated during the procedure.

Two days before the test, you will start eating a special diet and supplements to empty your intestine. This allows your doctor to see your colon clearly during the procedure. Your care team will give you specific instructions on how to prepare for a colonoscopy. 

Digestive Health: What's a Colonoscopy? Video Transcript


Teal and blue background with specks and ribbons of light. The Essentia Health logo appears, consisting of three leaves in a circle. Text, Essentia Health. Erin Thackeray, MD. Gastroenterologist.

ERIN THACKERAY: A colonoscopy is test-- it's a screening test for colorectal cancer. It's performed by a trained physician who inserts a tube into the rectum up through the colon. Prior to that, there is a colon preparation to clean out the colon that needs to be done. When the patient comes in, we give him medicine to make him nice and comfortable. So they're very comfortable during the exam.

Erin holds up the colonoscopy tool, a long wand. She demonstrates how the controls work on the tool.

We put the scope in, look through the colon, and at that point, we can identify and take out any polyps that we see. A polyp is a abnormal growth in the colon. Sometimes they're benign or don't grow up into cancer, but oftentimes they're precancerous which means that if we left them in, they could grow up into cancer.

Erin demonstrates how the camera works on the colonoscopy tool. The camera is at the end of a long, black, snake-like wand that moves as the operator uses the controls. The camera's view is displayed on a computer screen.

And so that's the important reason that we want to identify and take out polyps is that if we can remove those precancerous polyps, we can help prevent colon cancer. Colorectal cancer screening in an average risk individual, which is somebody who doesn't have a family history of colon cancer or colon polyps, and somebody who doesn't have any symptoms, usually that would mean rectal bleeding or abdominal pain or changes in bowel habits. So an average risk person should start at age 50 to start colorectal cancer screening.

Erin rotates the control on the colonoscopy tool.

Stool-Based Tests

If you’re not ready for a colonoscopy, ask your primary care provider about doing one of these easy take-home screenings:

Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT)

A fecal immunochemical test (FIT) checks for blood in your stool. This test can detect early stages of cancer but may not find precancerous polyps. If your test results are positive, you’ll need a colonoscopy.

Read why Kevin Schumann is grateful for a FIT that led to removal of precancerous polyps.


Cologuard measures altered DNA and/or hemoglobin in unusual stool cells. If the levels are high, you could have precancer or cancer. Your doctor may order a colonoscopy to learn more.

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