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Colorectal cancers can occur in the colon or the rectum.

To check for cancer of the rectum the doctor inserts a gloved finger into the rectum and feels for any bumps or abnormal areas. This is called a digital rectal exam and it should be done during regular checkups.

Beginning at age 50, you should have a yearly fecal occult blood test. This test is a check for hidden (occult) blood in the stool. A small amount of stool is placed on a plastic slide or on special paper. It may be tested in the doctor's office or sent to a lab. This test is done because cancer of the colon and rectum may cause bleeding. However, noncancerous conditions may also cause bleeding, so having blood in the stool does not necessarily mean a person has cancer. If blood is found, the doctor will order more tests to help make a diagnosis.

Every 3 to 5 years after age 50, you should have a sigmoidoscopy. In this exam, the doctor uses a thin, flexible tube with a light to look inside the rectum and colon for abnormal areas. This test allows the doctor to observe about the bottom 1/3 of your colon.

Doctors may also order a colonoscopy to look inside the colon if there are symptoms to suggest further investigation. The colonoscopy entails some preparation (enemas or other purgatives) and light sedation. This test allows the doctor to observe the entire inside of your colon and allows the collection of tissue or cells for closer examination should that be necessary.

Virtual colonoscopy is currently being studied as an alternative to conventional colonoscopy. Here is a link about this new procedure.  Optical Engineering

Colorectal Cancer Network is an online source of support services for anyone affected by colorectal cancer. 

Colon Cancer Alliance is a web site devoted to colon cancer information. The site includes an e-mail discussion list. 

Anal-cancer is a mailing list for anal and rectal squamous cell carcinoma patients and survivors, as well as for anyone having an interest in the matter. To subscribe send a blank email to:

Read our resources on colorectal cancers.

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material for this page excerpted from NIH documents with permission


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