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medical illustration of the different stages of colon cancer | Colon Cancer Screenings

What You Need to Know About Colon Cancer Screenings

While a colonoscopy is never a pleasant experience for any patient, colon screening is necessary for every American once they reach a certain age. It might just save your life. Colon cancer screenings could catch cancer in its early stages, which makes it far easier to treat.

According to the American Cancer Society, there will be over 95,000 cases of colon cancer in the U.S in 2016, and the disease is likely to kill up to 50,000 people this year. While most doctors recommend screening once you reach the age of 50, African-Americans are at greater risk of the disease and should have a screening test once they turn 45. You should also have an earlier screening if your family has a history of colorectal cancer.

A surprising number of Americans are relatively uninformed about this potential life-saving procedure, so keep reading to learn more.

One of the Best Screening Tests Available

Each year, an estimated third of eligible Americans don’t have a colonoscopy, and the rate is much lower in certain areas. For example, New York State’s Tioga County only has a 54 percent rate of colon screening. In terms of actually preventing cancer, colon cancer screenings are one of the best tests you can have.

During the colonoscopy, it is possible for the doctor to find precancerous polyps and remove them before they start causing issues. The American Cancer Society says that colon cancer deaths are falling rapidly each year because polyps are discovered during the tests, and it urges more patients to book an appointment.

Even the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force gave colon screening its “A” rating for adults aged 50-75, because of the substantial benefits.

You Could Receive a Free Screening

There are new methods of screening for colon cancer including a “virtual colonoscopy,” which President Obama had in 2010. There is also a home test called Cologuard, which looks for altered levels of DNA in your stools; the test costs approximately $650.

However, since colon screening now has the aforementioned “A” rating, insured patients must receive it without a copayment or deductible.

Private Insurers May Not Remove Copayments

You have coverage for Cologuard as a preventive colon screening test under Medicare, but not all private insurers have followed suit. Only 25 percent of privately insured citizens have coverage for Cologuard. The president and CEO of Exact Sciences (creator of the test), Kevin Conroy, believes this will change because insurers ultimately have to go along with the Task Force’s recommendations.

On the flipside, some private insurers cover virtual colonoscopies while Medicare does not. In 2009, it said there wasn’t enough evidence of the efficacy of the tests to warrant coverage. However, this may change in the near future, as Medicare is coming under pressure to reverse its decision, particularly since the test was clearly good enough for the President of the United States.

Patients may receive a copayment bill in certain circumstances. For example, Medicare will charge you a 20 percent co-pay bill if screening discovers a polyp that is subsequently removed. The average payment is just under $300, although it could be higher or lower depending on where the procedure takes place.

What Are the Best Colon Screening Tests?

According to the Task Force panel, no single test is definitively better than the rest; they all have pros and cons. Here is a look at the most commonly performed screening tests:


This involves the use of a small lighted tube with a camera on the end. It has the ability to analyze the full length of the colon and rectum, and polyps are removed during the procedure if found. You only need to take this test once every 10 years if it reveals nothing. The “bowel prep” portion of the test can be an unpleasant experience, as you must consume a strong laxative and follow a certain diet for 1-2 days before the colonoscopy. There is also a tiny risk of complications such as abdominal pain and bowel perforations.

Flexible Sigmoidoscopy

This test only looks at part of the colon and the rectum, but once again, the polyps are removed during the procedure, or else you can have a colonoscopy later. Again, bowel prep may be necessary, but it won’t be as extreme as it is for a colonoscopy. You only need this test once every five years. As it doesn’t reach the full colon, there is a chance it will fail to spot cancers.

CT Colonoscopy

This is another name for a virtual colonoscopy. It involves scanning the colon and rectum to see if cancers or polyps exist. Again, you need bowel prep. Air pumps into the rectum and colon, and a CT scanner takes the images. You should have this test every five years. If it finds a cancer or polyp, you will need a colonoscopy.

Double Contrast Barium Enema

This x-ray test involves putting barium in your rectum; the liquid goes to the colon. Air enters to spread the liquid and give an overview of your colon. The area is x-rayed and if the tests find a polyp or cancer, a follow-up colonoscopy will be necessary. You need bowel prep for this procedure as well.

Home Testing

These include a Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT), guaiac-based fecal occult blood test (gFOBT), and Cologuard. You may need these tests more regularly than the above (one to three years for Cologuard), and while they are becoming increasingly more effective at spotting cancer, they are not yet as good as the above tests.


It really is no exaggeration to suggest that colon screening could save your life. At present, there are too many Americans over the age of 50 who are not undergoing one of the above screening methods. We urge you to book an appointment for a colon screening. It can prevent cancer and help you enjoy your golden years.

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