Colorectal cancer can be identified during a routine screening. Everyone with an average risk for colorectal cancer should start getting regular colorectal screenings starting at age 45.
People who have symptoms of colorectal cancer should be tested regardless of their age. This is considered a diagnostic test.
The following tests may be used as screening and/or diagnostic tests for colorectal cancer. They can also show if the cancer has spread and monitor how the disease is responding to treatment.
Endoscopic screening and diagnostic tests
Endoscopic tests are the most effective tests for colorectal cancer. They can be used for routine screening that everyone should have starting at age 45. They are also used for patients who have colorectal cancer symptoms and need a diagnostic test.
These tests generally are performed under some form of sedation so that you do not feel any discomfort. Endoscopic tests allow your doctor to see the inside of your colon clearly.
Endoscopic tests may include:
- Colonoscopy: A tiny camera on flexible plastic tubing (colonoscope) is inserted into the rectum and advanced through the colon. This gives the doctor a view of the entire colon. Colonoscopies are used for routine screening and to diagnose people with colorectal cancer symptoms.
- Sigmoidoscopy: Sigmoidoscopy is similar to colonoscopy but is a shorter examination of the rectum and lower colon. It is used to monitor people with confirmed cases of cancer in the rectum or the last section of the colon. By examining just the rectum and lower colon, doctors can track the disease’s progress and how it is responding to treatment. A sigmoidoscopy combined with a stool-based test can also be used for routine colorectal cancer screening.
Biopsy: If doctors remove any polyps during a colonoscopy, they will be examined under a microscope for the presence of cancer cells. The process of removing and examining suspected disease tissue is called a biopsy.
At-home screening tests
There are several types of non-invasive colorectal cancer screening tests that can be taken at home. These do not provide a definitive diagnosis for colorectal cancer, but they can indicate that other, more accurate tests should be used. They are typically not offered to patients who have symptoms of colorectal cancer and are referred for a diagnostic test.
There are several types of at-home screening tests, including:
- Fecal DNA test (FDNA), which identifies DNA changes in the cells of a stool sample
- Fecal immunochemical test (FIT), which identifies blood proteins in stool
- Fecal occult blood test (FOBT), which identifies blood in the stool
Additional diagnostic tests
If you have symptoms of colorectal cancer, or if you have an abnormal screening test result, your doctor may recommend additional tests. These tests may include:
Blood tests: At present, no blood test can definitively diagnose colorectal cancer. However, they can provide your doctor with additional information.
- Standard blood tests can provide information about kidney and liver function and blood counts.
- A blood test for the carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) protein, made by some tumors, can reveal if the tumor is growing, responding to treatment, or has come back after treatment.
- Patients who have been successfully treated for colorectal cancer can be tested for circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA). This test can help catch recurring cancer early, before it shows up in an imaging exam.
Imaging tests: Imaging tests can help to provide detailed information about the size or location of colorectal cancer and if it has spread to other parts of the body. Common imaging tests are:
- CT scan: A computed tomography, or CT, scan uses an X-ray machine to take several pictures from different angles, providing a highly detailed image.
- MRI scan: Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI, uses magnetic fields and radio waves to generate pictures of the body’s soft tissue and organs. MD Anderson offers a specialized type of MRI used specifically to evaluate and help plan care for rectal cancer patients.
- PET/CT (positron emission tomography) scan: PET/CT scans are not routinely part of colorectal cancer diagnosis. They are generally used to further evaluate abnormal findings on CT or MRI scans or to monitor patients who have a confirmed case of advanced colorectal cancer.
Colorectal cancer testing can also include these other tests, which are used less often:
- Virtual colonoscopy or CT (computed tomography) colonoscopy: A focused CT scan of your abdomen and pelvis to create 3D images.
- Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) or endosonography: A flexible tube with an ultrasound device attached to the tip is inserted through the rectum into the colon. The device sends out ultrasound waves to generate images of the colon and nearby tissue.
- Double contrast barium enema (DCBE): Barium is a chemical that allows the bowel lining to show up on an X-ray. A barium solution is given by enema, and then a series of X-rays are taken.
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