How often should I be screened for colorectal (colon) cancer?

How often you should be screened for colon cancer depends on symptoms and family history. It used to be thought that the polyp to cancer sequence takes about 10 years, so screening colonoscopies were scheduled for 10 years. However, we now know that there are some polyps that can turn into cancer earlier. It has also been shown that right sided colon polyps can turn into cancer at a faster rate. If you have symptoms then you should get screened earlier. If polyps are seen or you have significant family history, screening intervals can be from one to five years.

Dr. Daniel D. Cho, MD

It is recommended that most individuals begin screening for colon cancer at age 50. There are special circumstances that may require screening at an earlier age. For example, if you have a family history of colon cancer or adenoma polyps, speak with your doctor first to determine the appropriate time to be screened.

Colonoscopy is considered the “gold standard” screening for colon cancer. Colonoscopy is generally recommended every 10 years. Alternatively, doctors may recommend an annual fecal occult blood test and a flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years.

The frequency of screening for colon cancer is dependent on many different factors including the type of screening test you are using, family and personal history and what is found during screening.

The best way to be screened for colon cancer is with a colonoscopy. The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends colonoscopies every 10 years beginning at age 50 and ending at age 75. It is important to mention to your doctor if you have a family member who was diagnosed with colon cancer at an early age, as you may need to start screening earlier. Other methods to screen for colon cancer include taking samples of stool to test for blood (fecal occult blood test) or antibodies (fecal immunochemistry testing), sigmoidoscopy or virtual colonoscopy. These methods are less invasive, but require more frequent testing than the standard colonoscopy.

Dr. Daniel M. Labow, MD
Surgical Oncologist

Since finding and removing polyps actually prevents colon cancer, regular screenings are important. Beginning at age, everyone should be screened for colon cancer, usually once every 5 to 10 years. People at high risk should be screened more often and should discuss a screening schedule with their doctor.

Individuals at average risk screened at age 50 with normal exam results will not have to return for another exam for ten years. Removal of an adenomatous (precancerous) polyp prevents that polyp from becoming cancerous, but the patient is still at risk to develop new polyps in the colon and will require more frequent follow-up exams. If the patient has a family history of colorectal cancer, the interval for their follow-up exam may be shortened. After a colonoscopy, the doctor will recommend when the patient should return for another colonoscopy.

People who have been diagnosed with polyps or colorectal cancer should notify their family members of the type of polyp or cancer found and their age at diagnosis. Both factors are important in assessing family members’ risk and will help their doctor determine when the family members should begin screening for colorectal cancer.

The frequency of colon cancer screenings depends on your risk and the type of screening you receive. Tests for blood in the stool should be done annually, whereas virtual colonoscopies and barium dye/x-ray views only need to be done every five years. A traditional colonoscopy should be done every 10 years. If you are at a high risk for colon cancer, your doctor will likely recommend more frequent screenings.

Dr. Walter J. Coyle, MD

Both men and women should be screened for colon cancer, starting at age 50. In some cases screening may begin earlier, for example, if you have a family history of colorectal cancer. How often you are screened depends on a number of factors. For colonoscopies, the interim between tests is usually 10 years. However, if a test finds a problem, this may be shortened.

For flexible sigmoidoscopy, often combined with fecal occult blood testing (FOBT), the test should be conducted every five years. Screening, using either procedure, generally stops at age 75.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.