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Colorectal Cancer Health Center

Colon Cancer Screening: Any Test Better Than No Test at All

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Researcher Ernest Hawk, MD, of the National Cancer Institute, agrees. The biggest factor in reducing deaths from colon cancer is not which test a patient has, he says, but getting patients to be tested at all. Hawk is chief of the Gastrointestinal and Other Cancers Research Group for the Institute's Division of Cancer Prevention.

"Each of these tests has limitations and benefits. Because this decision is so complex, it probably should be left to those being tested," he tells WebMD. "There is no question that doing something with regard to testing is better than doing nothing. Everyone who is older than 50 should undergo some form of colorectal cancer screening."

Edward Leigh believes that routine testing should begin at age 40 with a colonoscopy to start with, and he points out that 10% of colon cancers in the U.S. are diagnosed in those under the age of 50. He adds those with symptoms should be checked for the disease immediately -- no matter what their age.

"My primary care physician lacked an understanding about colon cancer, but even those who do know about the disease often don't think about it when a younger person presents with symptoms," he says.

Hawk says new techniques may soon make the testing decision much less complicated for both patients and doctors. He points to a preliminary study, published recently by researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., showing that DNA abnormalities specific to colon cancer can be measured through stool testing -- an indication that DNA testing may one day be an options. More studies of the technique are underway.

"If this turns out to be an accurate test to identify cancer and polyps through a stool-based method, it should greatly improve compliance," Hawk says. "Stool based tests are in many ways more attractive than endoscopic tests."

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