Never Tested for Colon Cancer? What’s YOUR Excuse?

By Durado Brooks, MD, MPH

Embarrassing!  Painful!  Disgusting!!


These are some of the words that come to mind for lots of folks when they think about getting tested for colorectal cancer. Let’s face it – this involves a part of the body and bodily functions that people don’t talk about in polite conversation. Hopefully I can convince you that they (and you) need to get past this attitude and get on with testing.

Cancers of the colon and the rectum (the last sections of the digestive system) are extremely common.  In fact, they’re the third most common cancer in US men and women. The good news is the rates of this disease have been falling steadily over the past 20 years, and a big part of the decrease is directly related to testing for colorectal cancer.  You see, not only can testing help find the disease early, when it’s highly treatable, but testing can actually help to prevent the disease! That’s because most colorectal cancers start as a small, non-cancerous growth called a polyp. Finding and removing these polyps stops cancer before it starts. 


You’d think that with these proven benefits people would be lining up to get tested – yet 4 out of every 10 adults who should get tested are missing out on this possibly life-saving opportunity. Why? There are a lot of myths about colorectal cancer that people use as excuses to avoid getting tested. The following are some of the myths about testing, as well as the facts people need to know.


Myth/Excuse:  “No one in my family had colorectal cancer, so I don’t need to get tested.”

Fact: Most people who get colorectal cancer DO NOT have a family history of the disease.  The most common reason for getting colorectal cancer is simply getting older. Risk starts to go up around age 50 and continues to rise for the rest of your life. If you have a family history of the disease your risk is even higher, but, family history or not, everyone 50 and older should get tested.


Myth/Excuse: “I’m not having any symptoms so I don’t need to worry.”

Fact: Many people who are diagnosed with colorectal cancer have no symptoms, and people with polyps rarely have symptoms. If you wait to get tested after symptoms develop you might miss the chance to prevent the disease or to find it before it grows and spreads.


Myth/Excuse: “If I have cancer there is nothing they can do about it, so why bother getting tested?”

Fact: Colorectal cancer is one of the most treatable forms of cancer. When the disease is found at an early stage (before it spreads outside of the colon) most people can be treated very successfully and go on to live long, full lives. Regular testing increases the chance that the disease will be found at this early, most treatable stage.


Myth/Excuse: “The tests are embarrassing and painful!”

Fact: There are actually a number of different tests for colorectal cancer. The most common tests are stool tests and the colonoscopy. Stool tests are used to look for small, invisible amounts of blood passed in a bowel movement that might indicate a polyp or cancer. These simple tests are performed in the privacy of your home. A colonoscopy is done by a specialist in a hospital or outpatient center. The test is done in a private room with no other patients around. A thin lighted tube is inserted into the rectum and allows the doctor to view the inner lining of your colon. Many people fear that this test will be painful. In fact, people who are having a colonoscopy are given medicine to help them relax; many people sleep through the exam. 


Most of the complaints about colonoscopy actually are not about the test, but instead are about preparing for the test.  In order for the doctor to get a good look at the colon lining the colon has to be cleaned out with strong laxatives, so people spend a lot of time in the bathroom during the evening before the test.  This is not convenient and it’s not comfortable, but it’s a small price to pay for a test that may save your life.


March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness month. Take this opportunity to talk about it! If you haven’t been tested, talk to your doctor. If you’ve been tested, talk to your family and friends. Make sure they know the facts and encourage them to get tested. Accept No Excuses!

Dr. Brooks is director of prostate and colorectal cancers for the American Cancer Society.

5 thoughts on “Never Tested for Colon Cancer? What’s YOUR Excuse?

  1. This was an excellent introduction for the new blog, and very timely. Written in easy-to-understand language, and faces the "real" issues (uncomfortable prep, embarrassment) head-on. I’m a former cancer columnist for a daily newspaper and I found this first blog to flow very easily. I liked the enumeration of all the usual "objections."

    Am looking forward to future blogs. Your stable of contributors sounds great!

    Shirley Ruedy
    Cedar Rapids, IA

  2. I had all the symptoms in 2007 (I was 46 then) but thought they were due to my endometriosis. In 2000 my mother at 77 had a cancerous polyp remove with a resection to test if it spread, but it didn't! My doctor recommended a colonoscopy and I put it off for over a year but finally listened in March 2008. I found out I had stage 3c colon cancer! I had a resection with 24" removed. I also had 6 months of chemo and am happy to say I am cured of my colon cancer (2012 and I'm 50). If only I had testing earlier…

    My brother immediately went for a colonoscopy as well as my older sister. Both were ok, my sister had a small polp removed. I've tried to no avail to get my younger sister (she's 47) to have a colonoscopy because she said she has no symptoms. A polyp doesn't have to have any symptoms!

    When I went for a CT scan 3/2010 (to say I was colon cancer free) they found a tumor on my ovary. Ovarian cancer (nothing to do with the colon cancer) Stage 1c due to my tumor breaking during surgery. It never would have been caught so early had it not been for my colon cancer screening.

  3. I was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer 2.5 years ago at age 48. I had no symptoms, supposedly did not have a family history & had never had a colonscopy. I initialy went to a local hospital because it was am emergency situation.They told me I would be dead within 1-3 years & the tumors had been 'cooking' in me for years, I told them that was not going to happen. I nearly died there that first Jan. I switched to my current Dr. at Yale Smilow Cancer Hospital. They have all been fantastic! I was given very aggressive Chemo & the tumors are ALL GONE!! No surgery. Alot of chemo & a lot of love. There are still tumor traces in my blood, so I am undergoing another round.
    I am very thankful for the work by the Cancer Society & have given in the past, supporting family members in Marathons & giving in general. Financially, I just can't do that right now & feel by donating my information,which has been sent all over the world, I am giving the best I can.
    My form of colon cancer is highly unusual for women & typically effects only men over 80 or 90. I was 48 when diagnosed & certainly not a man-I have 3 kids.
    As it turned out, it suddeny occurred to my mother that my grandfather & his brother were both treated for colon cancer. Of course this was never discussed-the type I have is strictly genetic.If I had known,I would have had a colonscopy at 40 or even earlier.Of course, I informed my brothers, sisters & cousins &explained that they really should get checked out. It was a series of very emotional & uncomfortable conversations, but i felt morally obligated to let them all know.
    I think the CancerSociety does a great job with all types of cancer, but to me it is very noticible that with the barrage of advertisements marathons & fundraisers, for Breast Cancer, Pancreatic Cancer, Leukemia, etc., there is never anything about colon cancer.
    What are we going to do about that?!
    I will help in any way I can, but just can't donate right now.

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