What you need to know about colon cancer screening

Blue ribbon for colon cancer awareness

Colorectal cancer, or colon cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in the United States. That’s a shame because colon cancer can often be prevented or detected early, when chances for successful treatment are higher. Here are some important things you should know about colon cancer screening.

Screening is important

Screening should begin at age 50 for people at average risk. Your doctor may recommend screening earlier if you have a family history of colon cancer or certain medical conditions.

You have choices

Colonoscopy used to be the only reliable screening choice. Today, there are several options. Talk them over with your doctor. Together you can decide which test is appropriate for you. See the back for screening descriptions.

There’s no cost

Colon cancer screening is considered preventive care and most preventive screenings for colon cancer are 100% covered.* Keep in mind, if screening leads to a positive result, you may have to pay some of the costs of follow-up tests or care. Your plan documents explain what’s covered and your cost shares.

Lifestyle matters

Exercise and maintaining a healthy weight can reduce your risk of colon cancer. Limiting alcohol, processed and red meats and not smoking can help reduce your risk even more. The American Cancer Society has more examples of ways to help prevent cancer.

Now what?

Contact your doctor to figure out your risk factors and identify the best test for you. Here’s some information on the different screening options to help get the conversation started.


Colon cancer screenings

Screening type What’s involved   Recommended Frequency

  • Examines the entire colon
  • Sedation is required
  • Polyps can be removed for biopsy
  • Performed in an outpatient setting

Every 10 years


  • Examines entire colon
  • No sedation necessary
  • Polyps cannot be removed or biopsied
  • Exposure to low dose radiation via x-ray
  • Colonoscopy necessary if positive

Every 5 years

Flexible sigmoidoscopy  

  • Examines the lower third of the colon
  • Does not require sedation or a specialist
  • Performed in a doctor’s office or outpatient setting
  • Colonoscopy necessary if positive
Every 5 years

  • Noninvasive test
  • Looks at the DNA in your stool for cancerous or precancerous cells
  • Done at home or in a doctor’s office
  • Colonoscopy necessary if positive
Every 3 years (according to the manufacturer’s recommendation)
Fecal immunochemical Test (FIT) (iFOBT)  

  • Noninvasive test
  • Looks for blood in the stool
  • No dietary restrictions
  • You do it at home
  • Colonoscopy necessary if positive
Every  year
Fecal occult blood test

  • Noninvasive test
  • Looks for blood in the stool
  • Some dietary restrictions
  • You do it at home
  • Colonoscopy necessary if positive
Every  year

“How often” frequency recommendations come from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and are based on normal screening results. Your doctor may recommend a different frequency depending on your results or other health factors.

* “Free” preventive care means that you will not have a copay or have to pay money toward your deductible or coinsurance for the services. Sometimes a preventive care visit leads to other medical care or tests, even at the same appointment. You should check with your doctor or doctor’s staff during your visit to see if there are services you may be billed for.

** COLOGUARD® is a registered trademark of Exact Sciences in the U.S. and other countries.