Rectal cancer screening tests allow physicians to look for unusual growths that could possibly indicate – or eventually develop into – cancer. Most rectal cancers begin as small, flat polyps. In their earliest stages, these polyps are typically asymptomatic. Screening tests, which are designed for individuals who are not currently experiencing any symptoms, can detect these polyps before they grow or become cancerous. This, in turn, makes it possible for oncologists to address abnormal polyps early, when treatment is typically less complicated and outcomes are generally most favorable.
There are several different tests that can be used for rectal cancer screening. These include:
- Fecal occult blood tests – Rectal polyps can produce blood in the stool, but early-stage polyps generally do not produce enough blood to be detected without specialized testing. During a fecal occult blood test, a stool sample is examined on a microscopic level to determine if any blood is present. However, bloody stool may also be indicative of a noncancerous condition (such as hemorrhoids), so abnormal results are generally not conclusive without further testing.
- Sigmoidoscopies – In most cases, rectal polyps – even in their earliest stages – are large enough to be seen during a visual examination. During a sigmoidoscopy, a physician inserts a small, lighted tube into the rectum through the anus and checks for any unusual growths. If a potential polyp is found during this type of rectal cancer screening, it can be immediately removed and sent to a lab for additional testing.
- Colonoscopies – Whereas a sigmoidoscopy examines only the rectum and the sigmoid colon, a colonoscopy examines a patient’s entire colon. This procedure requires more preparation on the part of a patient, but allows a physician to check for unusual growths throughout the full digestive tract.
As a whole, these rectal cancer screening methods are highly efficient. They are safe, largely accurate and can significantly reduce the likelihood of a colorectal cancer going undetected. Regular sigmoidoscopies, for instance, can reduce an older adult’s risk of passing away from colon cancer by up to 70 percent.
At Moffitt Cancer Center, our expert oncologists can help a patient determine how often and through which method rectal cancer screening should be performed. The recommended approach varies from person to person; we can advise each patient as to what would be best for his or her unique needs. And, because our team is skilled at detecting even the most subtle rectal cancer warning signs, we are able to increase the likelihood of early diagnosis – a key step in improving survival rates and quality of life.