- At-home colon cancer test vs. colonoscopy is a common argument between doctors and patients, but both have their place in fighting colon cancer.
- A positive result from an at-home test will probably require a colonoscopy.
- At-home testing can take the place of a regular colonoscopy depending on your risk profile.
At-home colon cancer tests vs. colonoscopy is an ongoing debate between patients and doctors. Yet, both have their place, with at-home tests being a useful early warning system you can use at any time. Here’s what you should know about testing at home.
At-Home Colon Cancer Test vs. Colonoscopy: Which Is Better For Me?
You should talk with your doctor about all your options, yet there are some situations where one test is preferable to the other.
At-home colon cancer screening is a better choice if:
- You have little or no family history of colorectal cancer.
- You haven’t had any polyps in the past.
- You are under the age of 50 and have no signs of colorectal cancer.
- You’re looking to engage in preventative medicine to catch cancer early.
- You have difficulty scheduling medical appointments or are uncomfortable talking to the doctor about these tests.
Colonoscopy may be a better option if:
- You have a family history of colorectal cancer and are concerned about your symptoms.
- You’ve had polyps, benign or cancerous, removed in the past.
- You’re over 45 with risk factors.
- You’ve had an unexplained change in your bathroom habits.
- You need to collect tissue for a biopsy.
After colon cancer treatment, your doctor may recommend regular at-home screenings once a year or more frequently with colonoscopy at longer intervals, such as every three years. That will depend on how aggressive the cancer is, what procedures are used to treat it, and how post-operative care goes.
What Is Colonoscopy?
A colonoscopy is a procedure during which a special flexible camera (a colonoscope) is inserted into the colon via the anus and rectum to examine the gastrointestinal tract for polyps, malformations, and other issues. Some colonoscopes will have tools attached to the end to remove lesions, cauterize injuries, take tissue samples, and perform other tasks during the procedure.
A colonoscope is slightly different from a sigmoidoscopy. A sigmoidoscopy doesn’t go as far into the body, but only to the sigmoid colon, the part closest to the rectum and anus. Your doctor might recommend a sigmoidoscopy as a screening procedure for a full colonoscopy.
The “virtual” colonoscopy is also being developed, where data from CT and MRI scans are collated to create a virtual model of your colon. However, since these are still experimental and only good for spotting larger polyps and lesions, they’re relatively rare.
The main benefit of a colonoscopy is that it doesn’t involve any surgery, and may not require sedation. Since opening the abdomen is a delicate and risky procedure, being able to safely remove polyps and examine the bowel without it is much safer for you and allows doctors to act quickly.
The downside, of course, is the bowel has to be as empty as possible. If you’re scheduled for colonoscopy, you will need to limit your food intake to clear fluids 24 hours beforehand and take laxatives to ensure your bowel is as empty as possible.
Fortunately, for people at low risk of colon cancer, there’s an alternative.
How Does At-Home Colon Cancer Screening Work?
At-home colorectal cancer tests are kits that allow you to collect a stool sample and send it to a lab for testing self-administered tests that look at your stool for evidence of cancer. There are three kinds of at-home colon cancer screening tests.
- The fecal immunochemical test (FIT) can detect signs of hidden blood in your stool. It isn’t affected by medicine or food intake.
- The guaiac fecal occult blood test (gFOBT) uses three separate samples to check for blood in the stool directly. It requires stopping the use of certain medications like NSAIDs and vitamin C supplements a few days before the tests.
- Stool DNA tests check for signs of cancer cells in the stool itself. They also check the stool sample for hemoglobin, which could be another sign of cancer.
In most cases, the test will require you to collect a stool sample. Be sure to follow the detailed instructions carefully. Depending on the test, you may have to collect multiple samples. You will then mail your sample to a lab in the packaging provided with the kit and access your results online.
The main advantage to home testing is that it can be done at any time, at lower cost, and with little special preparation. Depending on the brand, FIT tests can be slightly less accurate than other methods, but their overall accuracy rate of 95% is the same as colonoscopy.
At-home tests aren’t a replacement for a colonoscopy. If your test comes back positive, your doctor will likely order a colonoscopy to confirm the results and identify the location of the abnormality, so home testing may not eliminate the need for the procedure.
However, for those who are not at high risk for colon cancer, at-home tests serve as a convenient and less expensive early-warning system.
Which Is Better for Catching Cancer Early, an At-Home Test vs. a Colonoscopy?
While this varies from person to person, generally, at-home tests are better for catching cancer early for a couple of reasons.
The first reason is that an at-home test, while less accurate, can be done more frequently. Also, home tests are accurate enough to show you if there’s a concern so you can take other steps. For people who are mostly concerned about colorectal cancer due to their age, home testing is a better option.
Secondly, it’s less disruptive for patients. Most people are uncomfortable with the whole idea of colonoscopy. And even if they are comfortable with the procedure itself, the preparation for it can be disruptive. Many people have to take a few days off before and after the procedure as the lack of food and the laxative regimen can be hard on them. Not everyone has the opportunity to take time off for this procedure.
At-Home Colon Cancer Tests Are Easy
If you’re concerned about cancer or within the recommended guidelines for screening, take action. Depending on your situation, doctors may recommend colonoscopy as a first choice, but for many people, home testing is a safe and accurate option. At-home colon cancer testing is easy to do and offers both clear results and peace of mind. To learn more about colorectal cancer and screening, follow the eDrugstore blog.
Dan is a long-time freelance writer focusing on technology, science, health, and medicine, with a lifelong interest in physics, biology, and medicine. His work has taken a particular focus on scientific studies “beyond the headlines,” reading the study to more closely examine the results.