Colorectal Cancer Screening Q&A

By John Cope, MD

(Feb., 2020) According to the Vermont Department of Health, about 3,700 Vermonters will be diagnosed with cancer this year. One of the most preventable and treatable cancers is colorectal cancer, which is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States.

While many cancers can be treated if detected early, colorectal cancer can actually be prevented with available screening techniques.

Some of the signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer can be hard to diagnose in early stages. And they can be mistaken for other conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or a gastrointestinal virus.

This is why screening and detection are so crucial to ensuring your health.  Colorectal cancer has a near 90 percent five year survival rate when detected early. However, if detected in late stages when the cancer has been given time to spread to other parts of the body, that rate can drop to 15 percent.

Even when colorectal cancer has already developed, it is highly treatable when detected early.  Screening is your best tool to prevent colorectal cancer.  It’s a simple and effective way to protect your health for years to come.

In order to make sure that you have the information you need, here are answers to some common questions about colorectal cancer screenings.

Does everyone need to be screened for colorectal cancer?

The short answer is yes.  Everyone should receive a colorectal cancer screening by the time they are 45 years old.  For people with a family history of certain cancers or conditions, or for people with particular health risks, doctors can recommend getting a screening starting at age 35 or even earlier.  For people with no outstanding risk factors, the age for regular screenings is around age 45 to 50.  Talk to your primary healthcare provider and your insurance provider to see what the best screening schedule will be for you.

What is a colonoscopy?  Is it my only screening option?

While other tests such as stool tests and sigmoidoscopy are available, colonoscopy is considered the most effective and accurate screening tool for colorectal cancer.  A colonoscopy provides a visual examination of the lining of the colon and rectum using a flexible scope that can show polyps (precancerous lesions) or abnormal growths.  Colonoscopies are performed at the hospital while patients are sedated, and usually last 10-45 minutes.  Patients can expect to be at the hospital for 3-4 hours total. Someone will need to drive them home after the procedure.

Besides following my doctor’s screening guidance, what can I do about prevention?

For all cancers, including colorectal cancer, diet, exercise, and other health habits matter.  You can lower your chances of many different kinds of cancer by:

  • quitting smoking
  • eating a diet high in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains
  • getting regular exercise
  • limiting your alcohol intake.

With proper screening and simple changes to your lifestyle habits, you can prevent colorectal cancer and ensure that you remain healthy and active for years to come.

John Cope, MD, is a board-certified surgeon practicing at Brattleboro General Surgery, a department of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. For more information or to make an appointment at Brattleboro General Surgery, call 802-251-8650 or visit