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Tests to detect colorectal cancer and polyps

Each year about 145,000 Americans are diagnosed with colorectal cancer. According to UPMC Cancer Center, colorectal cancer is about 90 percent preventable with routine testing for people at higher risk — and when caught early, it is about 90 percent treatable.

What is colorectal cancer?

Colorectal cancer is a disease of the colon or rectum where abnormal cells divide uncontrollably into a malignant tumor. Most colorectal cancers begin as a growth of tissue that lines the inner surface of the colon or rectum. This growth is called a polyp. Colon polyps are actually very common. Over time, in some individuals, polyps can turn into cancer. If found early, usually through routine screening tests, polyps can be removed before turning into cancer. While not all polyps are cancerous, it’s important to understand and consider each person’s risk.

Unfortunately, colorectal cancer usually doesn’t cause symptoms until after it has started to spread (and more difficult to treat). That’s why knowing your individual and family risk factors is so important. Major risk factors for colorectal cancer include family history, obesity, excessive alcohol use, physical inactivity, smoking, and nutrition.

Who should be screened?

Screening tests help because they can find or prevent many cases of cancer in early stages. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening for colorectal cancer beginning at age 50 years and continuing until age 75 years.

According to the UPMC Cancer Center, regular screenings are recommended for anyone:

  • Older than age 50. (African-Americans should begin screening at age 45, as colorectal cancer tends to present at an earlier age and spread more aggressively when diagnosed.)
  • With a family history of colon cancer or polyps.
  • With any of these risk factors:
    • Heavy alcohol use
    • Obesity
    • Smoking
    • Type 2 diabetes

What screenings are available?

Tests that check the colon, rectum, rectal tissue, blood, and stool are used to detect and diagnose this kind of cancer.

Screening options include:

  • Physical exam and history
  • Fecal occult blood test
  • Digital rectal exam
  • Barium enema
  • Sigmoidoscopy
  • Colonoscopy
  • Biopsy

Talk with your health care provider about your risk and which test is best for you.

Where can I get tested?

You can schedule an appointment at UPMC Cancer Center.

  • Fill out UPMC’s appointment request form
  • Call 412-647-2811.


National Cancer Institute:

UPMC Cancer Center:

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force: