March 5, 2019

Screening for colorectal cancer can save lives

Karl Kwok, MD, an interventional gastroenterologist at Kaiser Permanente, offers health tips to lower one’s risk of developing colon cancer.

Karl Kwok, MD, an interventional gastroenterologist at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center, offers the following health tips to lower one’s risk of developing colon cancer.

Why is colorectal cancer screening so important?

Colon cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States. However, it’s also one of the most treatable cancers. When colorectal cancer is found at an early stage, the 5-year relative survival rate is approximately 90 percent. In fact, regular screenings can help detect advanced polyps, which are precancerous, and allow us to remove them using techniques that do not require surgery. This returns your colon-cancer risk back to baseline.

What methods are used to screen people for colorectal cancer?

Kaiser Permanente, in line with the  United States Preventive Services Task Force, encourages those age 50 and older to undergo screening with one of the following options:

  • A yearly at-home fecal immunochemical test, also known as FIT
  • An average-risk sigmoidoscopy every 5 year
  • Or an average-risk colonoscopy every 10 years

People with a higher risk for colorectal cancer, such as those with a strong family history of colorectal cancer, may need to start routine testing before age 50 and get tested more often.

To figure out which screening test is best for you, have a conversation with your primary care provider. Each test has its advantages and disadvantages, but one thing is certain: Regular colorectal cancer screenings can save lives.

Can colorectal cancer be prevented?

To a large extent, YES! Most cases of colorectal cancer are due to sporadic development of precancerous polyps that do not cause symptoms for a long period of time. This is why screening is critical — the earlier we detect and remove these polyps, the less likely they can grow into an advanced polyp and ultimately turn into cancer. Multiple studies have shown that precancerous  colon polyp removal is protective against subsequent development of colon cancer.

What risk factors increase a person’s chance of developing colorectal polyps or colorectal cancer?

Some of the known risk factors for developing colon cancer include:

  • Having a diet heavy in red meats and processed meats
  • Having a sedentary lifestyle
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Smoking and heavy alcohol use
  • Having a family history of colon cancer, especially a first-degree relative (mother, father, sibling, or child)
  • Having a personal history of colorectal polyps or a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis (a condition which causes chronic inflammation of the colon)
  • Your racial and ethnic background or your personal health history; for example, African Americans have the highest colorectal cancer incidence; people with a history of kidney transplants and people with Type 2 diabetes also have an increased risk of colorectal cancer

To learn more about colorectal cancer and the screening process, please visit