What Age are You Most Likely to Get Colon Cancer?

A lot of people want to know “the most likely age” a disease might happen. Getting screened, eating healthy, exercising and minimizing alcohol and tobacco can take some of the joy out of life. Especially if a disease might not strike until later in life. You might think of colon cancer as a disease of older people who have a lot of risk factors. But the truth is colon cancer can happen to anyone, even really young people.

What age can you get colon cancer?

The average age of being diagnosed with colon cancer is 68 for men and 72 for women. The “average age” is a little misleading and doesn’t tell the whole story. The average age at diagnosis has been getting younger for the past couple of decades, and doctors aren’t sure why. It could be because screening in older people is catching polyps before they have a chance to turn into cancer. Or it could be that there are more chemicals and toxins in the environment. Or maybe it’s because we’re more sedentary and eating more processed food at an earlier age.

Most cases of colon cancer still happens in people over 50 years old, but about 12% of cases are diagnosed in people under 50. Young men and women in their 20’s are diagnosed with colon cancer every year. As a matter of fact, the rate of people under 50 getting colon cancer has gone up about 2% a year since 1995. The rate for people over 50 has actually gone down about 3% a year during that same time. Screening tests like colonoscopies are thought to be one of the biggest reasons for the drop in those over 50.

So, who is most likely to get colon cancer?

Anyone can get colon cancer, but some people are more likely to get it than others. In an earlier blog post we talked about risk factors for getting colon cancer. It’s worth mentioning them again here, because they help us understand who is most likely to get colon cancer. A “risk factor” doesn’t cause cancer all by itself. Risk factors just mean that you have a greater chance of developing a disease than someone who doesn’t have them. Some people have lots of risk factors and never get cancer. Other people might not have any risk factors at all and still get that terrible diagnosis.

You have a greater chance of getting colon cancer if:

  • You are male: Men have about 30% higher rate of colon cancer than women.
  • You are Black or Native American/Alaskan: White Americans are about 30% less likely to be diagnosed with colon cancer than Black Americans. 
  • You are over 50 years old: The older you are, the higher your risk.
  • You have a lifestyle that puts you at risk; Obesity, smoking and alcohol overuse are all risk factors. So is being sedentary and eating a highly processed diet.
  • You have particular genetic syndromes: If colon cancer “runs in your family,” you may familial adenomatous polyposis or Lynch Syndrome. These are genetic conditions that are passed down through generations.
  • You have certain types of inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis.

Can I still get colon cancer if I don’t have any symptoms or risk factors?

You might not be overweight. You may have never smoked or drank alcohol. You might even eat 5-7 servings of vegetables and walk 2 miles every day. But you could still get colon cancer. Risk factors are only part of the puzzle of who gets this disease. Genetics are part and so is the environment. Every day that you get older, your risk goes up a little bit, even if you try to do everything “right.”

It’s important to remember that many people don’t have any symptoms at all  in the early stages of colon cancer. In order to catch colon cancer before it gets too far along, you should start getting screened at age 45 according to national guidelines. If you have other risk factors, talk to your doctor about getting screened earlier.

No matter what your age is or whether you have risk factors, you need to talk to your doctor right away if you have any symptoms that go along with colon cancer. Things like blood in your stool, bloating, weight loss, abdominal pain or feelings of fullness in your belly might be nothing…but they could also be the first clues of colon cancer.

You can get an idea of your individual risk by using the National Cancer Institute’s Colorectal Cancer Risk Assessment Calculator. Just answer a few questions online and you can print out the assessment to take to your doctor. It’s an easy way to start a difficult discussion.

The bottom line:

It’s impossible to predict at what age someone will develop colon cancer, or whether they’ll ever get it. Some people have lots of risk factors and never develop the disease. The average age is getting younger for men and women, and you’re more at risk as you get older, especially if you’re male, Black or have other risk factors. Regular screening beginning at age 45, and up until age 75, is recommended for all Americans. Check it as soon as you turn 45. Check it for someone you love. Check it for yourself. #Checkit4Andretti.

Fast Facts:

  • The average age of being diagnosed with colon cancer is getting younger.
  • You’ll have a better chance of surviving colon cancer if you catch it early, before it spreads to other parts of the body.
  • Since it is impossible to know for sure who will get colon cancer, every American between the ages of 45-75 should be screened regularly.

What is the Best Screening Test for Colon Cancer?

Every American between the ages of 45-75 should be screened for colon cancer. In the last post we talked about how screening tests are used to check for signs of colon cancer before you have any symptoms. Now we’re going to look at the different types of screening tests and get an idea of which one might be right for you.

What are the different types of screening tests for colon cancer?

Did you know that colon cancer is the third most common cancer in the US? Because it’s so common, a lot of research has been put into catching colon cancer early using screening tests. All this research has led to different ways of finding signs of cancer before it becomes too advanced. The earlier you find and treat cancer, the better your chances of beating it.

There are simple tests that detect blood or cancer DNA in the bowel movements. Radiologists can do special scans to take pictures of the bowels to check for tumors. Some types of tests allow doctors to look directly at the inside of the colon. These tests allow them to see any abnormal areas and take a biopsy at the same time.
Let’s take a closer look at how each of these tests are done, how often they need to be repeated and what information we can get from them.

Stool tests:

Colon cancer is sneaky in its early stages. You might not feel bad. You might not even notice anything different about your bowel movements. But there can be subtle changes that stool tests can pick up. 

There are 3 different types of fecal tests that look for changes in your stool.

  • Fecal occult blood test (gFOBT): Occult means “hidden” in this case. This test checks for blood in your stool that can’t be seen with the naked eye (and maybe hard to find even with a microscope!) It is one of the oldest tests, but it’s super-easy to do and very inexpensive. The doctor can do it right in the office when you have your annual physical exam. Or they can send you home with a special card and swab. After a bowel movement you just swab your stool and smear it on the filter paper on the card. You seal the card up and send it back to your doctor. 

In the doctor’s office, a few drops of a liquid containing a chemical called “guaiac” are placed on the filter. If there is no color change, you simply repeat the test every year.  If the filter turns blue, it means blood is in your stool. This doesn’t mean you have cancer, but it does mean you need to find out why there’s blood in your stool. Your doctor will probably recommend that you get a colonoscopy.

It’s important not to take NSAIDs, eat red meat or have citrus/vitamin C for a few days before the test because they can cause a false positive result.

  • FIT test: FIT means “fecal immunochemical test.” This test is done pretty much the same way as the gFBOT. Instead of using guaiac, it uses antibodies to look for blood in the stool. FIT test is a more specific test for blood. You don’t have to worry about your medications or what you eat beforehand. If it is abnormal, you will need to follow-up with a colonoscopy right away. FIT test should be done every year.
  • FIT-DNA test: FIT-DNA is two tests in one. It checks for hidden blood, just like the FIT test. And it also detects the abnormal DNA of cancer cells. It is different from FIT and gFOBT because you’ll get your kit in the mail. Next, you’ll collect your entire bowel movement in the special container and send it back to the lab. 

If any abnormal DNA or blood is found, you’ll need a colonoscopy to make sure there’s no signs of cancer in your colon. FIT-DNA only needs to be done every 3 years if the results are normal.

Radiology test:

A CT colonography or “virtual colonoscopy” is a test done by the radiologist. It uses X-rays and a CT to create a 3-dimensional picture of your colon and rectum. It is a very sensitive test that can detect small abnormalities such as tumors or polyps. 

Most people don’t need any sedation for a virtual colonoscopy. The test doesn’t require instruments going into the rectum (it’s non-invasive). But, the colon and rectum have to be cleaned out ahead of time using a “bowel prep.” This means that the day before the scan, you will take some medications that cause your bowels to completely empty out. If stool is still in your colon, it can make it hard for the radiologist to read the scans correctly.

On the day of the test, the radiologist will have you drink “contrast solution” which will help show the lining of the gut on the X-rays. A small tube will be used to place some air into your rectum and colon. Finally, you’ll be asked to hold your breath for a few seconds at a time while the scan is done. You might feel a little bloated for a day or two,until all the air is passed.

A virtual colonoscopy should be done every 5 years if no abnormalities are found. If any area is concerning, you should get a colonoscopy right away.

Direct visualization test (using a camera):

The virtual colonoscopy gives doctors a lot of information, but it can miss some smaller abnormalities. Flexible sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy are two tests that use cameras to look at the inside of the gut.

Flexible Sigmoidoscopy

Just like with the virtual colonoscopy, you will need to empty your bowels before the procedure. You and your doctor will decide whether you need sedation. Many people don’t want to be sedated. The doctor will have you lie on your side. They’ll lubricate your rectum and insert a small tube. This will allow them to insert some air and a camera. If they see anything abnormal like a polyp, they can go ahead and take a biopsy (cut it out for tests.) A small amount of blood or cramping and bloating can happen after a flexible sigmoidoscopy.

A Flexible sigmoidoscopy only looks at the very last part of the colon and rectum. If you have a tumor or polyp at the beginning of the colon, it won’t be seen. Flexible sigmoidoscopy isn’t usually recommended for screening in the US.

If you and your doctor do decide to go this route, you’ll need to repeat it every five years. If you combine this test with a FIT every year (or FIT-DNA), you’ll only need to do it every 10 years.

Colonoscopy

Although it’s the most complex test, colonoscopy is the gold-standard of screening tests for colon cancer. Colonoscopy requires that you have a full bowel prep the day before. You will need to take medications that cause your bowels to empty completely. A colonoscopy is done by a gastroenterologist (GI doctor). It can be done in a special office, a surgery center or even in the hospital. You will almost always get to go home the same day.

Most people have heavy sedation or go to sleep for this procedure. The doctor will have you lie on your side, lubricate your rectum and insert the tube for the air, camera and biopsy equipment. In a colonoscopy, the doctor looks at the inside of the entire colon from the rectum all the way back to the cecum.

The gastroenterologist will be looking for things like polyps. Polyps are finger-like pieces of tissue that stick out from the lining of the colon. A polyp might not be cancer, but the only way to know for sure is to cut it out and look at it under a microscope. The doctor will also be looking for ulcers, areas of redness or larger masses. If they see anything that doesn’t look normal, they will take a biopsy to make sure that cancer isn’t quietly growing inside you.

The colonoscopy usually doesn’t take more than 60 minutes to do. But you’ll need an hour or two to fully wake up before you can go home. You might have a little bleeding, some cramping or bloating, but you should be back to normal the same day.

If your colonoscopy is normal and you don’t have an increased risk for colon cancer, then you only need to get a colonoscopy every 10 years.

The Bottom Line

The earlier you catch colon cancer, the more likely you are to beat it. The best way to catch colon cancer early is by doing a screening test on a regular basis, before the cancer gets far enough along to cause symptoms. There are many screening tests available. The best test for you depends on your risk factors and which test you will reliably do on schedule. Get checked starting at age 45. Check it for you. Check it for someone you love. CheckIt4Andretti.

Fast Facts:

  • Screening tests check for signs of colon cancer before you have any symptoms
  • There are many different screening tests that you can choose from including colonoscopy, stool tests and radiology exams
  • The best screening test for you will depend on your risk factors, but it’s also the one you are most likely to do!

When Should I Get Screened For Colon Cancer?

There is a lot of confusion about when is the right age to get screened for colon cancer. As a matter of fact, even the experts differed on the best age to recommend screening. That’s why they turned to the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). This is a group of scientists and doctors who look at all the available information and decide how to best prevent disease in the US.

What is a screening test?

First of all, we need to define what a “screening test” is. A screening test is used by doctors to look for disease before you have any symptoms. The idea is that if you catch it before it is far enough along to cause symptoms, you’ll have a better chance of curing the disease- or maybe even prevent the disease from happening. If you have any symptoms or are at increased risk for a disease, then you need to have a diagnostic test. 

Get screened starting at age 45

In 2021, USPSTF recommended that everyone aged 45-75 should get a screening test for colon cancer. They found that when screening was done in people over 50 years old (the age they used to recommend), the risk of dying from colon cancer actually went down. At the same time, they found that the rate of colon cancer was increasing in people younger than 50 years old.

What if you are older than 75? 

Depending on your health and whether you’ve had an abnormal test in the past, you might still want to get screened on a regular basis. If you’ve had an abnormal screening test in the past or if you’ve had colon cancer, your doctor will probably recommend that you continue getting tested regularly. Sometimes people decide that they don’t want to continue with the screenings after 75, especially if they have other serious health concerns. You can talk to your healthcare provider and they will help you figure out whether to continue screening or not.

After the age of 86, there doesn’t seem to be any benefit to getting screened. You can completely stop testing at that age. The best news is that you’ve outlived most of the people in the country!

What if I have risk factors for colon cancer?

Things that can increase your risk for colon cancer include: 

  • Age: older age = greater risk
  • Race: increased risk in Black Americans, Native Americans and Alaskan Natives
  • Family history of Lynch syndrome, familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), polyps or colon cancer
  • Personal history of inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
  • Other risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, smoking, and excessive alcohol use.

If you have any of these risk factors, you should talk to your doctor about getting screened before 45 years of age. People with a family history of some genetic disorders like FAP or Lynch syndrome should start getting tested as early as 20 years of age. Make sure you tell your healthcare provider about any family history of cancer, especially colon cancer.

Follow this link to download a handy chart to track your family history. Print it out, then talk to your family members. Once you have it filled out, share it with your family members so that they are aware of your family’s risk. You can share it with your doctor, too.

What if I have symptoms of colon cancer?

Many people who are diagnosed with colon cancer have no symptoms at all. If you notice any of these symptoms, you should see your healthcare provider right away.

  • Change in bowel habits including diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool, that lasts for more than a few days
  • Feeling like you need to have a bowel movement which is not relieved by having one
  • Bright red blood in your stool
  • Darker than usual stools 
  • Cramping or abdominal pain
  • Weakness or constant fatigue
  • Weight loss without dieting

There are a lot of different ways to get screened for colon cancer. These include several different stool tests, CT scans and even colonoscopy. How often you need to repeat the screening test depends on which one you use. We’ll talk about the different test options and how often they need to be repeated in another blog post.

The bottom line is that colon cancer is one of the top causes of cancer deaths in the US. Screening has been shown to reduce the risk of dying from this common disease. Screening is recommended starting at age 45 for those people at average risk. So make sure you check it for someone you love. CheckIt4Andretti.

Fast Facts:

  • Colon cancer screening saves lives!
  • Every American between 45-75 years of age should be screened for colon cancer, even if you don’t have any risk factors.
  • People between 76-85 years old should talk to their doctor about whether screening would be helpful.
  • People who are younger than 45 who have symptoms or risk factors should talk to their doctor to decide the best course of action.

Welcome to CheckIt4Andretti Blog

When John Andretti was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2017 at the age of 53, he was healthy and active. John had a lot of questions so he turned to experts for answers. John fought valiantly. He went through surgeries, chemotherapy and even tried experimental treatments. But because of the late stage of his cancer when it was diagnosed, John lost the battle in 2020.

John’s wife, Nancy, along with their children, started the CheckIt4Andretti Foundation to make sure everyone could have access to life-saving screening and health information before it’s too late. The entire Andretti family and organization have made it their mission to raise awareness and improve access so that everyone has the best chance of preventing and surviving colon cancer.

In addition to providing colonoscopies to those who can’t afford them, we are here to answer common questions about colon cancer, colon cancer screening and especially questions about colonoscopies. We believe that you are your own best health-care advocate. 

Colon cancer can be confusing! Our blog will try to simplify the research, guidelines and recommendations that are always changing. Our articles are meant to give you up-to-date facts about colon cancer in easy-to-understand terms.

Some of the questions we will tackle include:

  • What age should I get screened for colon cancer?
  • Who should get screened?
  • What are the different choices for screening? Is one test better than the others?
  • What happens if my screening test is abnormal?
  • What are the treatment options if I’m diagnosed with colon cancer?

This blog will offer links to expert websites where you can get more in-depth information on the topics we cover. You’ll also be able to find links to helpful videos and other resources. We hope you check back here often to see what’s new. Remember to check it for someone you love. Check it for yourself. Checkit4Andretti.