The truth about colorectal cancer

March 21, 2022 Providence Cancer Team


In this article:

  • Colorectal cancer is the third-most common cancer in America.

  • Regular screenings can identify colorectal cancer in its earliest stages when treatment is most likely to get the best results possible.

  • Separate the fact from fiction to better understand your risk of colorectal cancer and protect your health.

“Ignorance is bliss” may be a valid sentiment for some topics. But colorectal cancer is not one of them.

Colorectal cancer occurs in the colon, rectum, or both. It is the third-most-common cancer in adults in the United States. It doesn’t have to be. Colorectal cancer can often be prevented with regular screenings and lifestyle choices that minimize your risk. But all too often, myths and misconceptions prevent you from getting the care you need. Separating the facts from fiction can help protect your health.

Myth: Only older people get colorectal cancer

Although the risk of developing colorectal cancer increases with age, the number of adults younger than 50 diagnosed with colorectal cancer goes up every year, according to the American Cancer Society. If you’re Black, African American or Jewish with Eastern European heritage, you are at greater risk than people in other racial or ethnic groups.

Additional risk factors include:

  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Family history of colorectal polyps or cancer
  • Personal history of inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
  • Moderate to heavy alcohol consumption

Myth: Only people with symptoms need regular colorectal cancer screenings

You need to get screened for colorectal cancer even if you don’t have symptoms. Colorectal cancer cells grow very slowly in most people, and symptoms often don’t arise until the disease is more advanced.

The American Cancer Society recommends the following screening schedule:

  • Start regular screenings at age 45 if you are at average risk of colorectal cancer. Talk to your physician about earlier screenings if you have factors that increase your risk.
  • Continue regular screenings through age 75.
  • From age 76 through 85, talk to your doctor about whether screenings should continue based on your personal preference, overall health, and prior screening history.
  • Once you’re older than 85, you no longer require regular colorectal cancer screening.

Myth: A colonoscopy is the only form of colorectal cancer screening and it’s a difficult, uncomfortable procedure

Colonoscopies may have a bad reputation, but in reality, you’ll be given medication that helps you sleep and minimizes your discomfort during the procedure. Even the preparation has gotten easier as experts have refined the process over time.

In addition to colonoscopies, several screening options are available, including a simple, take-home option known as the fecal immunochemical test (FIT). Both types of screenings can detect precancerous polyps in the colon. Regardless of which one you have, the most important thing is to follow your doctor’s recommendations afterward. If you have a positive FIT test, you will need a colonoscopy. If you have a colonoscopy and the doctor removes polyps, you'll need to return for follow-up colonoscopies on a regular schedule.








A colonoscopy uses a lighted, flexible tool to view the complete lining of the colon. During this test, the doctor will look for precancerous growths (polyps). This test happens while you’re asleep (sedated) and requires clearing the colon with medicine (laxatives).

If no polyps are found, this test only needs to be done about once every 10 years.







The FIT tests (including Cologuard) detect hidden blood in the stool and use DNA to detect cancer cells. Your physician will give you the kit to take home with you, along with detailed instructions on how to use it. These tests require you to collect samples of your stool.

If results come back negative, your doctor will probably recommend you repeat the test one to two times a year. If positive, then you’ll need a colonoscopy.

Speak with your primary care doctor about the best type of screening for you.

Myth: I don’t need to get tested for colorectal cancer if I don’t have any symptoms

Even if you feel fine, you should still follow the American Cancer Society’s recommendations for screenings. Cancer does not always have recognizable symptoms when it’s just beginning and that’s when it’s easiest to treat.

Symptoms to watch for include:

  • Rectal bleeding (the most common symptom)
  • Pain when using the bathroom
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Unexplained new constipation or other changes in bowel habits

Speak with your primary care provider for more information on colorectal cancer screenings. Make sure they are aware of any family history of colorectal cancer. And if it's time for your first (or next) colonoscopy, don't put it off. It could save your life!


Schedule a colonoscopy and find a doctor

You can schedule a colorectal cancer screening without a physician referral. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can also access a full range of healthcare services.

Download the Providence App

We’re with you, wherever you are. Make Providence’s app your personalized connection to your health. Schedule appointments, conduct virtual visits, message your doctor, view your health records and more. Learn more and download the app.

Related resources

Am I at risk for colorectal cancer? What can I do to lower my risk

Screening: Young Adults and the Alarming Rise of Colorectal Cancer

Prevention is key to cancer treatment – Don't delay screenings

American Cancer Society: Take the Quiz: Colorectal Cancer

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions

About the Author

The Providence Cancer Team is committed to bringing you the most up-to-date insights about treatments, prevention, care and support available. We know cancer diagnoses strain you both mentally and physically, and we hope to provide a small piece of hope to you or your loved ones who are fighting the cancer battle with useful and clinically-backed advice.

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