Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This cancer---which starts as polyps in either the colon or rectum---kills an average of 53,000 people each year. If caught early, it is highly treatable. A colonoscopy test allows your doctor to look inside your colon and rectum and find the polyps before they become cancerous.
The CDC recommends that everyone over age 50 be screened for colorectal cancer. If you are younger than 50 but experience rectal bleeding, blood in the stool, persistent diarrhea, or anemia, you should also have a colonoscopy. If you have regular abdominal pain or changes in bowel habits, you should consider getting a colonoscopy no matter your age.
Polyps are painless growths inside your body located in your colon or rectum. According to the National Cancer Institute, they are common in people over age 50, and most are non-cancerous. However, in some people they begin to grow and become cancer. Having a colonoscopy is one of the most reliable methods to determine if you have polyps.
If you have a close family history of colorectal cancer, meaning that a brother, sister, child or parent has this disease, you may be at higher risk for getting it. In this case, your doctor may recommend genetic testing. Scientists have identified a genetic mutation that can lead to colorectal cancer. With this information, you and your doctor can plan appropriate regular screening, like a colonoscopy.
Lifestyle factors may also lead you to consider a colonoscopy. A study conducted by the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine found that lifestyle affects your risk of getting colorectal cancer. To reduce your likelihood, they recommend that you limit the amount of red and processed meat you eat, increase the amount of fruits and vegetables, exercise regularly, reduce alcohol consumption and lose weight. If your lifestyle habits are poor and you have other symptoms, you should consider getting a colonoscopy.
Other conditions, like ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, puts you at higher risk for developing colon cancer. If you have a history of these types of inflammatory bowel disease, you should consider a colonoscopy, according to the Mayo Clinic.
If you are squeamish about getting a colonoscopy, there are other screening tests available. The American Cancer Society, in conjunction with other professional associations, details a range of options that include a stool test for hidden blood, a sigmoidoscopy, a barium enema, or even a virtual colonoscopy. If you have any symptoms that may lead you to suspect you are at risk for colorectal cancer, you should discuss them with your doctor to determine the best test for you.