At-Home Colon Cancer Screening Tests: Are They a Safe Alternative?

Colon cancer is the third most common cancer for both men and women, but when detected early, it can be effectively treated. In a study performed by the American Cancer Society, they found that the rate of colorectal cancer has doubled in young adults. Because of this, getting screened for colon cancer is so important, especially if you are having symptoms such as blood in your stools, stomach pain, or unexplained weight loss. It is also recommended that people aged 50 years and older have a colonoscopy every 10 years. Colonoscopy is the only procedure that can examine the entire colon for pre-cancerous polyps and cancer and remove them if found. It is considered the gold-standard test to prevent and treat colon cancer; however, it requires a bowel prep as well as sedation, which may prevent some people from being screened.

Can At-Home Colon Cancer Screening Tests Be Used as an Alternative to Colonoscopy?

At-home colon cancer screening tests may seem like better options than going through a colonoscopy, but they have their limitations. The benefits of these tests include less extensive or no bowel preparation prior to performing the test and no need for sedation. While these two benefits alone may make an at-home test seem like a better option, you need to consider the risks. There are three types of stool tests that can be performed at home. These include:

  1. Guaiac-Based Fecal Occult Blood Test (gFOBT)—This test examines a small amount of stool, which is submitted in a kit to either your physician’s office or a laboratory, to detect the presence of blood. It is recommended that it be done once a year.
  2. Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT)—The FIT test also detects blood in your stool but uses antibodies instead of guaiac. The collection is the same as the gFOBT and is also performed once a year.
  3. FIT-DNA Test (Cologuard)—This test looks for both blood and changes in the DNA of cells seen with colon cancer and polyps that are turning into colon cancer. The recommended frequency of testing with Cologuard is every 3 years.

The difference in colonoscopy and the at-home stool tests is that colonoscopy can detect pre-cancerous polyps, which can be removed during the procedure, whereas the stool tests detect only the presence of cancer. The FIT test has been shown to be superior to the gFOBT test. The following pros and cons of each test are listed in the table below.

How Do I Decide Which Test Is the Best Option?

The at-home colon cancer screening tests are a good place to start if this is the first time you have been screened for colon cancer. If the likelihood that you will follow through with being tested is greater with an at-home test than a colonoscopy, then an at-home test is more beneficial than not being tested at all. Keep in mind that a negative result does not rule out the presence of cancer, and it may give you a false sense of security. Any positive tests have to be followed-up by a colonoscopy.

While the at-home testing option may seem an easier alternative to the requirements of a colonoscopy, both the risks and benefits need to be considered. If you are at a higher risk for colon cancer (family history, age >50, abdominal symptoms), colonoscopy is usually the recommended test. Before making a decision, discuss with your Gastroenterologist the most appropriate test for you. Make sure to tell him/her all of your concerns so that you can decide on a treatment plan that you are both comfortable with.

Prevention is the key to better health. All physicians at Digestive Health Associates of Texas are trained and experienced in each of these colorectal screening tests. Call today to make an appointment with one of our Gastroenterologists to get screened and enjoy the peace-of-mind that comes from being in control of your health.