Health / Tips & tools

Is It Time for Your Colon Cancer Screening?

Masked doctor and patient

It’s safe to say that no one looks forward to getting screened for colon cancer (also called colorectal cancer). But many people dread the idea so much that they avoid getting tested altogether.

Colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.1 It often begins as a growth called a polyp inside the colon or rectum. Finding and removing polyps can prevent colon cancer or find it early, when it’s easier to treat.2

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently expanded the recommended ages for colon cancer screening to 45 to 75 years (previously, it was 50 to 75 years).3 If you’re in that age category, BCBSRI covers recommended colon cancer screenings at 100% when you see a provider in your plan’s network. This includes colonoscopies as well as some take-home tests. If you are aged 76 to 85, please talk to your provider about screening.

Your choices for screening

A colonoscopy is often the test that people think of first, but a number of colon cancer screening options are available, including at-home tests. It’s important to know that if your test result is positive or abnormal on some screening tests (stool tests, flexible sigmoidoscopy, and CT colonography), you’ll also need to have a colonoscopy.4

Talk to your provider about which test is right for you based on your family history and any medical conditions you have. Let your provider know the test you prefer, as they want to make sure you’ll have the screening. Below is a look at your choices. The information about each test (including how often to have it) is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.4

Stool Tests

  • Guaiac-based fecal occult blood test (gFOBT)
    In this test, the chemical guaiac is used to detect blood in the stool. You receive a test kit from your healthcare provider. At home, you collect a small amount of stool. You return the test kit to the doctor or a lab, where the stool samples are checked for the presence of blood.
    How often: Once a year
  • Fecal immunochemical test (FIT)
    This at-home test uses antibodies to detect blood in the stool. You’ll receive a test kit from your healthcare provider to collect the samples, then will return them as directed in the kit.
    How often: Once a year
  • FIT-DNA test (also referred to as the stool DNA test)
    This combines the FIT with a test that detects altered DNA in the stool. For this test, you collect an entire bowel movement and send it to a lab, where it is checked for altered DNA and for the presence of blood.
    How often: Every three years

Flexible sigmoidoscopy
For this test, the doctor puts a short, thin, flexible, lighted tube into your rectum. The doctor checks for polyps or cancer inside the rectum and lower third of the colon.

How often: Every 5 years, or every 10 years with a FIT every year

This is similar to flexible sigmoidoscopy, except the doctor uses a longer, thin, flexible, lighted tube to check for polyps or cancer inside the rectum and the entire colon. During the test, the doctor can find and remove most polyps and some cancers. Colonoscopy also is used as a follow-up test if anything unusual is found during one of the other screening tests.

How often: Every 10 years (for people who do not have an increased risk of colorectal cancer)

CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy)
Computed tomography (CT) colonography, also called a virtual colonoscopy, uses X-rays and computers to produce images of the entire colon, which are displayed on a computer screen for the doctor to analyze.

How often: Every 5 years

Questions to ask your provider

These questions can help you talk with your provider about colon cancer screening:

  • What screening test(s) do you recommend for me? Why?
  • How do I prepare? Do I need to change my diet or my usual medication before taking the test?
  • What’s involved in the test? Will it be uncomfortable or painful?
  • Is there any risk involved?
  • When and from whom will I get results?

If you’re having a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy, you will want to know:

  • Who will do the exam?
  • Will I need someone with me?

If you'd like help setting up a colon cancer screening, please contact BCBSRI Customer Service. For more information about screenings, please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).