The Basics: Overview
If you are age 50 to 75, get tested regularly for colorectal cancer. A special test (called a screening test) can help prevent colorectal cancer or find it early, when it may be easier to treat.
You may need to get tested before age 50 if colorectal cancer runs in your family. Talk with your doctor and ask about your risk for colorectal cancer.
How often should I get screened?
How often you need to get screened will depend on:
- Your risk for colorectal cancer
- Which screening test you choose
How do I decide which test to take?
There are different ways to test for colorectal cancer. Your doctor can help you decide which test you would prefer.
Before you talk with your doctor about which test to get, it can be helpful to think about your values and preferences. Answer these questions to find out which test you would prefer – then share the results with your doctor.
Together, you and your doctor can make a screening plan that’s right for you.
The Basics: What to Expect
What are the different kinds of tests?
Several different kinds of tests can be used to screen for colorectal cancer. The main types are:
- Stool-based tests
- Tests that look directly inside the colon and rectum
Stool tests are done at home. You collect a stool (poop) sample and send it to a lab for testing. Then the lab sends the results to your doctor.
Tests that look directly at your colon and rectum – like a colonoscopy – are done in a doctor's office or hospital. For these tests, you need to take a laxative to clean out your bowels before the appointment. You'll get anesthesia before the test, and you'll need someone to drive you home after the test.
Your doctor will tell you how to get ready for your test, including if you need to avoid certain foods beforehand. Learn more about colorectal cancer screening tests.
Does it hurt to get a colonoscopy?
Preparing for a colonoscopy can be unpleasant, but most people agree that the benefits to their health outweigh any discomfort. And getting anesthesia means you won’t have any pain or feel uncomfortable during the test.
To learn more, check out these stories from real people about colonoscopies.
The Basics: Colorectal Cancer
What is colorectal cancer?
Colorectal cancer is a cancer that develops in the colon or the rectum. The colon is the longest part of the large intestine. The rectum is the bottom part of the large intestine.
Like other types of cancer, colorectal cancer can spread to other parts of your body. Find out more about colorectal cancer.
The Basics: Am I at Risk?
Am I at risk for colorectal cancer?
The risk of developing colorectal cancer increases as you get older. That’s why screening is recommended for everyone age 50 to 75.
Other risk factors are:
- Having certain types of polyps (growths) inside the colon
- Having a personal or family history of colorectal cancer
- Smoking cigarettes
- Being overweight or having obesity
- Not getting enough physical activity
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Having certain health conditions, like Crohn’s disease, that cause chronic inflammation (ongoing irritation) of the small intestine and colon
Use this calculator with your doctor to find out your risk of colorectal cancer.
Take control – act early.
If you start getting screened at age 50, you have a good chance of preventing colorectal cancer or finding it when it can be treated more easily.
- If your doctor finds polyps inside your colon during the test, she can remove them before they become cancer.
- If your doctor finds cancer during the test, you can take steps to get treatment right away.
Take Action: Get Tested
The best way to prevent colorectal cancer – or find it early – is to get tested starting at age 50.
Talk with your doctor about getting screened.
Print these questions to ask your doctor about colorectal cancer screening. Take them to your next checkup.
What about cost?
Under the Affordable Care Act, the health care reform law passed in 2010, most health insurance plans must cover screening for colorectal cancer. Depending on your plan, you may be able to get screened at no cost to you.
- If you have private insurance, talk to your insurance company to find out what's included in your plan.
- If you have Medicare, find out about Medicare coverage for different colorectal cancer screening tests.
- If you don’t have insurance, you can still get important screening tests. To learn more, find a health center near you.
To learn more about other preventive services covered by the Affordable Care Act, visit HealthCare.gov.
If you are nervous about getting a colorectal cancer test, get support.
- Ask a family member or friend to go with you when you talk to the doctor.
- Talk with people you know who have been screened to learn what to expect.
Do you know someone age 50 or older who hasn’t been tested for colorectal cancer yet? Use these tips to start a conversation about the importance of screening.
Take Action: Healthy Habits
People who smoke are more likely to get colorectal cancer. If you smoke, make a plan to quit today.
Watch your weight.
Being overweight increases your chance of developing colon cancer. Find out how to control your weight.
Regular exercise may help reduce your risk of colorectal cancer. Take steps to get moving today.
Drink alcohol only in moderation.
Drinking too much alcohol may increase your risk of colorectal cancer. If you choose to drink, have only a moderate (limited) amount. This means:
- No more than 1 drink a day for women
- No more than 2 drinks a day for men
Talk with your doctor about taking aspirin every day.
Taking aspirin every day can lower your risk of colorectal cancer, heart attack, and stroke. But it’s not right for everyone. If you are age 50 to 59 and have risk factors for heart disease, ask your doctor if daily aspirin is right for you.
Content last updated October 15, 2020
This information on colorectal cancer was adapted from materials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute.
Rebecca Chasan, Ph.D.
Chief, Science Writing and Review Branch
Office of Communications and Public Liaison
National Cancer Institute
National Institutes of Health
Ann Pluta, Ph.D.
Scientific Communications Editor Office of Communications and Public Liaison
National Cancer Institute
National Institutes of Health