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Colon Cancer Screening: Care Instructions

Your Care Instructions

Colorectal cancer occurs in the colon or rectum. That's the lower part of your digestive system. It is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in Canada. It often starts with small growths called polyps in the colon or rectum. Polyps are usually found with screening tests. Depending on the type of test, any polyps found may be removed during the tests.

Colorectal cancer usually does not cause symptoms at first. But regular tests can help find it early, before it spreads and becomes harder to treat. Experts advise routine tests for colon cancer for people starting at age 50. And they advise people with a higher risk of colon cancer to get tested sooner. Talk with your doctor about when you should start testing. Discuss which tests you need.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

What are the main screening tests for colon cancer?

  • Stool tests. These include the fecal immunochemical test (FIT) and the fecal occult blood test (FOBT). These tests check stool samples for signs of cancer. If your test is positive, you may need to have a colonoscopy.
  • Sigmoidoscopy. This test lets your doctor look at the lining of your rectum and the lowest part of your colon. Your doctor uses a lighted tube called a sigmoidoscope. This test can also be used to remove polyps or get a tissue sample (biopsy). This test can't find cancers or polyps in the upper part of your colon.

What tests do you need?

The following guidelines are for people age 50 and over who are not at high risk for colorectal cancer. You should have at least one of these tests as directed by your doctor and your provincial guidelines.

  • Fecal immunochemical test (FIT) or fecal occult blood test (FOBT) every one or two years
  • Sigmoidoscopy every 10 years

If you are age 75 and have had regular screenings or are age 80 or older you may not need screening.

Talk with your doctor about when you need to be tested. And discuss which tests are right for you.

Your doctor may recommend earlier or more frequent testing if you:

  • Have had colorectal cancer before.
  • Have had colon polyps.
  • Have symptoms of colorectal cancer. These include blood in your stool and changes in your bowel habits.
  • Have a parent, brother or sister, or child with colon polyps or colorectal cancer.
  • Have a bowel disease. This includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease.
  • Have a rare polyp syndrome that runs in families, such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP).
  • Have had radiation treatments to the belly or pelvis.

When should you call for help?

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You have any changes in your bowel habits.
  • You have any problems.

Where can you learn more?

Go to

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