If you’ve seen the commercials with the talking box encouraging you to mail in a stool sample to get tested for colon cancer, you may be wondering if that’s something you should do. It’s true that sending poop in the mail is no longer something you only do as a prank. It’s actually encouraged and could potentially save your life. However, there are some things you should know before you reach for the nearest box.
Why would I choose the mail-in option?
If you are at an average risk for colorectal cancer, there are several advantages to choosing the mail-in fecal immunochemical tests (FIT) option. No. 1: You can brag to your friends that you’re getting FIT, and they’ll think you’re just exercising and not sending poop in the mail. No. 2: You just have to go number two, which is considerably less invasive and uncomfortable than a colonoscopy (we hope — if not, call your doctor now). No. 3: We’re still in a pandemic, and the less contact you have with other people, the better. No. 4: You don’t have to prepare for the test. You just let it go like you normally would.
However, there are some reasons this option isn’t as comprehensive as a colonoscopy. Mail-in stool tests have a 92% sensitivity rate for detecting colon cancer, which is on par with a colonoscopy, but only a 17% sensitivity rate for detecting cancer-causing polyps. Additionally, if you go this route, the test needs to be done once a year. If your test results show signs of colon cancer or polyps, you’ll end up needing a colonoscopy anyway.
Colonoscopy is the gold standard
The traditional option to screen for colon cancer is a direct look at the colon through a colonoscopy. This procedure is more, um, invasive … as it involves advancing a tube with high definition camera and light throughout the colon to look for precancerous polyps. The procedure is generally done under sedation so most people don’t feel anything. The test has a 95% sensitivity rate for detecting existing colon cancer and an 85% sensitivity rate for detecting polyps that can become cancerous. The upside is that you only have to do it once every 10 years if no polyps are detected. The downside is that you do need to take extra preparation to empty your colon before the procedure, and you can’t drive yourself home afterward.
Regardless of which option you choose, doctors agree that any recommended screening test for colorectal cancer is instrumental in preventing the spread of cancer through early detection.
How do I know which option is best?
The only way to set up a screening is by talking with your doctor about your options so you can determine your risks for colorectal cancer — which you can now do virtually. Your doctor will give you recommendations based on your family history and talk about options — typically a colonoscopy or a mail-in stool test.
If you opt for a colonoscopy, your doctor will give you the information you need to make your appointment and prepare.
If a stool test sounds better to you, ask your doctor for a mail-in kit to ship your stool sample. After you fill the provided container, seal that stinker up and get it in the mail as quickly as possible. For the most accurate results, the sample needs to be as fresh as possible so don’t wait. Your package will end up at a lab, and your doctor will get the results and share them with you.
Who needs to be screened?
When it comes to colorectal cancer screenings, the American Cancer Society recommends being tested as early as age 45, although most insurances don’t cover the screenings until age 50. Statistically, Black men and women are at a higher risk. There is a lifetime risk of 4% to 5% in the average person, but that jumps to about 33% if you have a family history of cancer. If you have a close relative who have been diagnosed with colon cancer, you should be screened every five years beginning at age 40 or 10 years before the age when your youngest affected relative was diagnosed. The most important thing to remember is that early detection can make a big difference in outcomes – colorectal cancer is one of the most preventable and curable cancers if caught in time.
If you fit the bill of needing to be screened, talk to your doctor about getting a test kit. Then grab a book and some air freshener and head to the bathroom. Screening is vital for early detection of disease, plus you can always imagine the package is being delivered to that person who called your Lizzie McGuire headband stupid — looking at you, Cody.
Next Steps and Useful Resources
- Download our Cancer Screening Guide for the latest cancer screening recommendations.