American Cancer Society lowers age for colon cancer screening |

American Cancer Society lowers age for colon cancer screening

Dr. Mark McCaulley, who is a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs, offers information on the new American Cancer Society guidelines about colon cancer screenings.
John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The American Cancer Society has adjusted its guidelines for colon and rectal cancer screenings, and the change should have adults in their mid-40s calling their doctors to arrange a procedure that could be life-saving.

“There has been an upswing in colon cancer at younger ages,” said Steamboat Springs physician Mark McCaulley, who is a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs. “We are seeing it earlier and earlier,”

McCaulley said that the new guidelines encourage colon and rectal screening for adults at age 45, instead of the previous recommended age of 50. He said catching colon and rectal cancers in the early stages is key to treatment.

Colorectal cancer in the third-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men and women in the United States and is expected to result in more than 50,000 deaths in 2018, according to the American Cancer Society. One out of every 22 men and one out of every 24 women will develop colorectal cancer in their lifetime.

When found early, these cancers are normally curable with a five-year survival rate of about 90 percent. But if the cancer goes unchecked, the five-year survival rate drops dramatically.

McCaulley said it’s rare, but he has seen colon cancer in patients who are in their 20s and 30s. Because of the recent changes, McCaulley said it is a good idea for people to check with their insurance companies about coverage before making an appointment.

Because of the inconvenience of the screening procedures, like bowel prep, loss of time from work and the need to have the procedure done at a hospital, making an appointment is normally at the bottom of most people’s to-do lists, McCaulley said.

McCaulley said there are also other screening options for people, including stool tests like guaiac-based fecal occult blood tests, which use the chemical guaiac to detect blood in the stool, and fecal immunochemical tests, which use antibodies to detect blood in the stool. Those tests are normally performed once per year.

There is also the FIT-DNA test, which is similar to other stool tests but identifies altered DNA in the stool. Doctors might also suggest the virtual colonoscopy, which uses CAT scans and computers to produce two- and three dimensional images of the colon. The procedure can be used to diagnose issues in the colon, but if an issue is found, a colonoscopy or surgery may be needed to remove polyps or cancers.

Another test, the flexible sigmoidoscopy test, allows a doctor to use a short, thin flexible tube to look for polyps or cancer inside the lower third of the colon.

Most of the tests still require bowel prep and the need to go to the hospital, but others simply require the patient to collect stool samples at home. McCaulley said all of the tests have proven effective in the screening of colon and rectal cancer, and each has strengths and weaknesses that can be explained by a doctor.

The key, according to McCaulley, is paying attention to symptoms like blood in your stool, aches or cramps in your stomach that do not go away and unexplained weight loss. These symptoms may be caused by something other than cancer, but people with these symptoms are encouraged to see their doctor.

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.

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