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What are the benefits and limitations of screening for colorectal cancer?

A doctor meeting with an older male patient in an exam room.

Almost every test or procedure has benefits and limitations. You might think of these as pros and cons. Before having any test, it’s important to be aware of them so that you’re making an informed decision that’s right for you. No screening test is 100% accurate, but the scientific evidence tells us that having regular stool tests lowers the risk of dying from colorectal cancer. It’s important to know the benefits and limitations of regular cancer screening.

Benefits of regular stool tests
  • Doing a stool test reassures you if the result is normal.
  • A stool test can prevent cancer by detecting blood from polyps. These polyps can be removed before they become cancerous.
  • A stool test helps find cancer early before you have symptoms.
  • A stool test helps find cancer before it spreads when it is easier to treat.
  • Most colorectal cancers are harmful and should be found and treated as early as possible.
  • Early detection may mean less treatment and less time spent recovering.
  • The earlier colorectal cancer is detected, the better your chance of survival.
Limitations of regular stool tests
  • A stool test may suggest a polyp or colorectal cancer even though it is not present (called a false positive).
  • A stool test may not detect a polyp or colorectal cancer even though it is present (called a false negative).
  • Some colorectal cancers would not necessarily lead to death or decreased quality of life (overdiagnosis).
  • A colonoscopy may be needed after a positive stool test. There can be risks with this procedure such as bleeding and bowel perforation.

It’s your decision

Still trying to decide if screening is right for you? When you think about how important it is to find cancer early, we believe the benefits of having regular stool tests for colorectal cancer outweigh the limitations.

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