How to Catch Colon and Rectal Cancer Early

These common cancers may be curable if caught early.

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“Colorectal cancer is one of the most common cancers in the United States,” says Elliot Newman, MD, chief of surgical oncology at Lenox Hill Hospital, Northwell Health System. “The incidence is certainly increasing, and we believe that’s because we are picking up more and more tumors at earlier stages.”

Colorectal cancer is a type of cancer that affects the lower digestive tract, specifically the colon or the rectum. On average, 4.5 percent of U.S. men and 4.2 percent of women will develop colorectal cancer at some point in their life, according to the American Cancer Society.

“The good news is the death rate from colon cancer has been dropping. And that’s because people are being screened, the disease is being picked up at earlier stages, and we’re able to cure people,” says Dr. Newman.

How Colon Cancer Is Caught Early

Colon cancer can be detected early by screening tests, usually by a procedure called a colonoscopy. Undergoing a screening colonoscopy can prevent colon cancer by allowing doctors to discover polyps or precancerous lesions in the colon or rectum. These abnormal growths can then be removed before they develop into cancer. (Learn more about what to expect during a colonoscopy.)

Regular colonoscopy screening—and the removal of polyps—reduces the risk of developing colon cancer by 90 percent, according to UpToDate from Wolters Kluwer.

When to Get Screened for Colon Cancer 

“Knowing when to get screened changes based on your risk profile,” says Dr. Newman. “For average risk patients, we recommend starting at age 50. Then depending on the results of that first colonoscopy, it can be anywhere from five to 10 years for your next one.”

People with risk factors for colon cancer are often recommended to start screening earlier and be screened more often. These risk factors for colon cancer include:

  • Patients with inflammatory bowel disease

  • Lifestyle issues like poor diet or cigarette use

  • Family history

“These are not hard and fast rules. The best thing to recommend is that people with these problems consult with their physicians based on their individual situation,” says Dr. Newman. “So the message to people is: If you go for screenings at the proper times based on your personal risk, you have the best chance of picking up disease either in a precancerous stage or in an early stage of the cancer where our chance to cure you is certainly the highest.”