Colorectal cancer facts

3 facts that may make it easier to protect yourself from colorectal cancer

Here are three facts everyone should know about this disease. They could change the way you think about colorectal cancer — and may even save your life.

Fact 1. It can affect anyone

Colorectal cancer — cancer of the colon or rectum — is one of the leading causes of cancer deaths in both men and women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It usually occurs after age 50. But it may develop earlier in life.

Your risk of developing colorectal cancer may be higher than average if:

  • You’ve had polyps or colorectal cancer before.
  • A close relative has had polyps or colorectal cancer before.
  • You have ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, or a genetic condition that predisposes you to polyps or colorectal cancer.

Other factors — such as your weight, activity level, diet, and use of tobacco or alcohol — may increase your risk as well.

Fact 2. It can be stopped before it starts

Most cancers in the colon and rectum begin as polyps. These are small growths that can turn into cancer.

A colonoscopy is a screening test that allows doctors to see the entire colon. During the test, your doctor may be able to remove any polyps he or she finds before they become cancerous. So in this case, a medical test may actually help prevent cancer from developing.

Fact 3. Screening tests save lives

Preventing colorectal cancer is best — but finding it early matters too. Symptoms may not appear until the disease is more advanced — and harder to treat. That’s why screening is so important.

When the condition is found in its earliest stages, the chance of being cured is good, according to CDC.

Don’t delay: Bring it up with your doctor

For most people, regular screening should begin at age 50, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. But if you are at high risk, you may need to be tested earlier and more often.

For people at average risk, experts generally recommend one or more of the tests below. Talking with your doctor is the best way to determine which test or tests to have — and on what schedule. Check your benefit plan to see what services may be covered.

The tests

High-sensitivity fecal occult blood test (FOBT) or fecal immunochemical test (FIT)

These tests look for traces of blood in your stool — a possible sign of polyps or cancer. 

How often: They’re typically advised yearly. (They can be combined with sigmoidoscopy.)

Stool DNA test

This test looks for altered DNA in your stool, which may be a sign of cancer.

How often: It’s typically advised every one to three years.

Flexible sigmoidoscopy

During this test, a small, lighted tube is inserted into the rectum. Doctors look for growths in the rectum and lower part of your colon.

How often: It’s typically advised every five years. (If you have a FIT every year, you might only need this every 10 years.)


This test is similar to sigmoidoscopy. But it looks at the entire colon. During the procedure, doctors can remove most polyps and some cancers.

How often: It’s typically advised every 10 years. Doctors may also recommend it as a follow-up — if a different test finds something unusual.

Virtual colonoscopy

This test uses a CT scan to create an image of your entire colon to look for polyps.

How often: It’s typically advised every five years.

Prevention pointers: Smart steps for life

If you change your choices, you may be able to change your chances of developing colorectal cancer. Here are seven health habits that may help lower your risk:

  • Aim for a healthy weight.
  • Stay physically active.1
  • Eat plenty of veggies and fruits.
  • Choose whole-grain foods.
  • Limit red meat — eat skinless poultry, fish or unprocessed meats instead.
  • Avoid tobacco.
  • If you drink, do so only in moderation. That means no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks for men.

What to do next

Find preventive care guidelines for you and your family at Many preventive care services may be 100 percent covered by your UnitedHealthcare plan.2


  1. For safety’s sake, talk with your doctor before significantly increasing your activity level.
  2. Check your benefit plan to see what services may be covered.


American Cancer Society; U.S. Preventive Services Task Force


The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be nor should be construed as medical or other advice. Talk to an appropriate health care professional to determine what may be right for you.

Last reviewed July 2017