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Colorectal Cancer Health Center

Over 50? Schedule Your Colon Cancer Screening

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Rustgi says that the screening tests are useful for preventing colon cancer because the tests can identify suspicious polyps, or small growths, in the colon that could be precancerous, he explains.

Several screening tests are available, ranging from a simple home test that can be performed on an annual basis to a more invasive test that experts advise people aged 50 and older have every 10 years.

The home test is a fecal occult blood test, also known as an FOBT. The test detects occult, or hidden, blood in the feces. A positive result does not always mean that cancer is present, but blood in the feces can suggest cancer. Blood vessels on the surface of cancerous growths are often fragile, and in the intestine, can be damaged by the passage of feces.

Another highly recommended test is a sigmoidoscopy. Doctors use a sigmoidoscopy to look at the inside of the rectum for polyps projecting from the intestine. The procedure involves inserting a flexible, 2-foot long tube into the rectum and up to the colon. The tube allows doctors to see about half of the colon using an attached video camera. Experts advise people aged 50 and older to have one every five years.

Experts say that people at risk should have the entire colon examined using a colonoscopy every 10 years. A colonoscopy involves inserting a flexible, 4-foot long tube into the colon, allowing the doctor to see the entire colon and increasing the chances of spotting a cancerous growth.

In the CDC's two-year study, more than 63,000 people were asked if they ever had an FOBT, a flexible sigmoidoscopy, or a colonoscopy.

In 1999, about 40% of the respondents reported having an FOBT, compared with less than 20% in 1997. Another 43% reported having a sigmoidoscopy within the previous five years compared with about 30% in 1997.

Efforts are now under way to further increase awareness about colon cancer and screening. Earlier this month, the CDC and the Health Care Financing Administration, which oversees the Medicare program, launched a nationwide campaign to raise public awareness. Congress also designated March as "National Colorectal Awareness Month."

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