Colon Cancer Tests Catching On

Trend Is 'Encouraging' but Racial and Ethnic Gaps Remain, Says CDC

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on March 13, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

March 13, 2008 -- Getting a colon cancer test has become more common for people aged 50 and older, but less so for minorities.

The CDC reported that news today, based on national health studies done from 2002 to 2006.

Colon cancer screening is recommended starting at age 50 for people who aren't at high risk of developing colon cancer. People in high-risk groups may need to start screening earlier.

Here's a quick look at the colon cancer tests the CDC recommends:

  • Fecal occult blood test (FOBT): Checks for blood in the stool; recommended yearly.
  • Colonoscopy: Doctors guide a thin, flexible tube with a tiny camera throughout the entire colon, looking for cancers or abnormal growths (polyps). How often: Every 10 years if results are normal.
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy: Like colonoscopy, but doesn't check the entire colon. How often: Every five years.
  • Double-contrast barium enema: X-rays of the colon and rectum. How often: Every five years.

Last week, the American Cancer Society issued new guidelines on colorectal cancer screening. For the first time, those guidelines allow for the use of "virtual colonoscopy," which isn't yet on the CDC's list of recommended tests.


In the CDC's surveys, people aged 50 and older were asked if they had gotten FOBT within the previous year or colonoscopy/sigmoidoscopy within the previous decade.

In 2006, nearly 61% said they had done so, up from about 57% in 2004 and almost 54% in 2002.

The surveys don't show whether people got colon cancer tests as routine screening or to diagnose a colon problem.

Room for Improvement

The rise in colon cancer test use is "encouraging," states the CDC. But while colon cancer testing rose among all racial and ethnic groups, the rates remain lower for minorities than for whites.

In 2006, about 63% of whites aged 50 and older had gotten colon cancer tests, compared with 59% of African-Americans, almost 56% of Asian/Pacific Islanders, about 48% of American Indians/Alaska Natives, 47% of Hispanics, and 46% of people of other ethnic backgrounds.

Colon cancer tests were more common among people aged 65 and older and those with higher incomes and health insurance.

In the past, colon cancer tests were more commonly reported by men. But that gender gap appears to be closing, according to the CDC.

WebMD Health News



CDC, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, March 14, 2008; vol 57: pp 253-258.

WebMD Medical News: "New Colon Cancer Screening Guidelines."

News release, CDC.

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