Myths and facts about colorectal cancer screening

March 25, 2024 Providence Cancer Team


In this article:

  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends adults ages 45-75 undergo colorectal cancer screening.
  • There are many myths about colorectal cancer screening, but we tackle some of the most common ones and debunk them.
  • It’s best to talk to your doctor about which method of colorectal cancer screening is right for you.

Myths and facts about colorectal cancer screening

While colorectal cancer is the third-most-common cancer in adults in the United States, it is perhaps one of the most preventable. Other types of cancer may cause symptoms only in late stages, but you can often catch colorectal cancer before it fully develops into a life-threatening problem.

The challenge is to move past all the myths and misconceptions that could prevent you from finding the care you need. Here, we explore some of the most common myths — and the facts behind those myths.

Introduction to colorectal cancer and screening

First, however, let’s take a look at colorectal cancer itself.

What is colorectal cancer?

This type of cancer starts in the colon or rectum, usually as a growth called a polyp. While polyps themselves are not cancerous, some types can change into cancer over time. If cancer forms in the wall of a polyp, it can grow into the wall of the colon or rectum over time, potentially spreading to other parts of the body.

Why is screening important?

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that adults ages 45 to 75 be screened for colon cancer. The reason is simple: You want to be able to identify and remove polyps before they have a chance to develop into cancer.

Common myths about colorectal cancer screening

The following are three common myths about colorectal cancer screening:

Myth 1: Only older people get colorectal cancer.

The facts: Although the risk of developing colorectal cancer increases with age, the number of adults younger than 50 diagnosed with this disease 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 2: 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 other 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 screening you undergo, 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.

Myth 3: You can wait until you’re 50 to start colorectal cancer screenings.

While colorectal cancer rates have decreased overall, they have actually increased in people younger than age 50. As a result, the American Cancer Society now recommends that both men and women start undergoing screening colonoscopies at age 45. Talk to your doctor about whether you should have a colonoscopy.

“It’s very important to know that if you have a family history of colon cancer, we’re going to recommend screening earlier than age 45,” says Dan Getz, D.O.,  chief medical officer for Providence Inland Northwest Washington.

Once you have your first screening, your doctor can help you develop a schedule for future screenings. For example, if they find precancerous polyps during a colonoscopy, they will probably recommend that you undergo another screening in five years. If they don’t find anything, you may be able to wait another 10 years.

Types of screening tests

There are several different types of screening tests:


The most widely known colorectal cancer screening test is the colonoscopy. During the procedure, a doctor inserts a thin, flexible, lighted tube into your rectum and your entire colon to check for polyps. During the test, the doctor can remove most polyps and some cancers.

Most people are familiar with a colonoscopy because of the preparation that comes before it. Typically, you will need to stick to a strict, fiber-free diet for a few days, then drink a special laxative the day before the screening to completely clear out your bowels.

Stool tests

There are several different kinds of stool tests that check for the presence of blood and altered DNA in a stool sample. Depending on the individual test, you may be able to undergo such a test at home, or you may have to come into a lab.

How to make an informed decision

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 health care services.

Contributing caregiver

Dan Getz, D.O., is chief medical officer for Providence Inland Northwest Washington. Dr. Getz discussed colorectal cancer screenings and other types in a Men's Health Series video. You can learn more or watch the video here.

Download the Providence app

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Related resources

Talk with a Doc: Let's talk colorectal cancer screenings

Rising cancer rates among young adults

Keep your colon healthy

Cancer screenings are important

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care 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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