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The Importance of Colorectal Cancer Screening

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, an opportunity to learn more about how screenings can help detect, and possibly prevent, this devastating disease. According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is still the third leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S., and is expected to cause approximately 49,700 deaths in 2015. However, screening can save lives by finding the disease in its early, most treatable stages, and by detecting polyps that can be removed before they become cancerous.

While many people know that it is important to be screened for colorectal cancer, you may still have some important questions about the screening and whether or not it’s right for you.

Who should be screened?

The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that all adults, both men and women, be screened for colorectal cancer from ages 50 to 75. However, your doctor may recommend you be screened at an earlier age if a close relative has had colorectal cancer or if you’ve had inflammatory bowel diseases or other related conditions in the past. Talk with your doctor to determine when you should begin screening.

What types of screening tests are available?

There are a number of available screening options that can help detect colorectal cancer. However, the USPSTF recommends using one of three tests – fecal occult blood testing, sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy. These tests vary as far as sensitivity, frequency, preparations and the procedure itself, so it is important to talk with your doctor to determine the most appropriate test for you.

For example, colonoscopy is an important tool because it can both detect and remove polyps, which may later become cancerous, as well as detect early cancers. However, the procedure is more invasive and requires more preparation than the other screenings. It is also important to know that if you decide to use another testing method and the results find anything unusual, you will likely need a colonoscopy as further testing.

There are other types of tests available, such a virtual colonoscopy, but because these are not included in the USPSTF recommendation, they may not be covered by your health insurance plan.

To learn more about the types of colorectal cancer screenings, visit the CDC website here.

How often should I be screened?

Screening frequency* can vary based on the type of test you and your doctor decide is best for you. Among the types of screening tests recommended by the USPSTF:

  • Colonoscopy is typically done every 10 years
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy is recommended once every 5 years
  • Fecal occult blood testing is done approximately once a year

*These frequencies assume the results of the first test are negative.

Do I have to pay for screenings?

With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), many health plans, Medicare, and Medicaid now cover selected preventive services, including the colorectal cancer screening tests that are recommended by the USPSTF. Because of this, many plans cover a number of screening options, including fecal occult blood testing, sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy.

Not only are these screenings covered, but many plans offer these tests at no cost to you – that means no copayment or coinsurance when you visit an in-network provider, even if you haven’t met your deductible yet. For those who are underinsured or uninsured, low or no-cost screenings are available. Check with your healthcare insurer to confirm which screening methods are covered under your plan.

Colorectal cancer screenings can save lives by detecting the disease early while it is most treatable and preventing cancer from developing by removing pre-cancerous polyps. While the prevalence of colorectal cancer is decreasing, this is because of increased screening, so it is important to talk with your doctor to decide when to begin screening and which test is best for you.

For Health Advocate Members

If you’re a Health Advocate member, call your Personal Health Advocate for help scheduling an appointment to talk with your doctor about when you should be screened for colorectal cancer and which screening method is most appropriate for you.

Other Helpful Resources

To learn more, please visit any of the websites below that provide additional information about colorectal cancer screenings: