• Kevin Bain

Colorectal Cancer Awareness, Part 4: How is it Diagnosed and Staged?



Even though colorectal cancer might not cause symptoms, particularly in early stages of the disease, timely detection and diagnosis improves the chances of survival. If you have symptoms that might be from colorectal cancer, or if a screening test shows something abnormal, your doctor will recommend one or more of the exams and tests below to find the cause.


Physical exam

  • As part of a physical exam, your doctor will likely feel your abdomen for masses or enlarged organs, and also examine the rest of your body.

  • Your doctor may also perform a digital rectal exam. During this exam, the doctor inserts a lubricated, gloved finger into your rectum to feel for any abnormal areas.

Stool tests

  • If you are seeing the doctor because of symptoms you are having, he or she may recommend a test to check your stool (feces) for blood that isn’t visible to the naked eye, which might be a sign of cancer.

  • Another type of stool test – Cologuard® (Exact Sciences Corporation) – looks at the DNA in your feces to determine if cancer or pre-cancerous cells exist. This test, which not only detects altered DNA but also looks for blood in your stool, can be done in the privacy of your own home and is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). To learn more about the specifics around Cologuard, contact the company’s Customer Support Center (1-844-870-8870) or visit their website.

Blood tests

  • Your doctor might also order certain blood tests to help determine whether you have colorectal cancer.

  • Examples of blood tests that your doctor might order as part of your diagnostic work-up include complete blood counts, liver enzymes, and tumor markers.

  • These tests also can be used to help monitor your disease, if you’ve been diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

Diagnostic colonoscopy

  • A diagnostic colonoscopy is just like a screening colonoscopy, but it’s done because a person is having symptoms, or because something abnormal was found on another type of screening test.

  • Colonoscopy may be done in a hospital outpatient department, in a clinic, or in a doctor’s office.

  • To learn more about colonoscopy, how it’s done, and what to expect if you have one, see Colorectal Cancer Screening Tests.

Imaging tests

  • Imaging tests use various methods, such as sound waves and x-rays, to create pictures of the inside of your body.

  • These types of tests may be done for a number of reasons, including to look at suspicious areas that might be colorectal cancer and to learn how far the cancer has spread.

  • For more information on imaging tests that might be done by your doctor, see Tests to Diagnose and Stage Colorectal Cancer from the American Cancer Society.

Biopsy

  • If a suspected colorectal cancer is found by any screening or diagnostic test, your doctor will usually take a biopsy – a tissue sample for further exam – during a colonoscopy.

  • To learn more about the types of biopsies, how the tissue is used in the lab to diagnose cancer, and what the results may show, refer to Testing Biopsy and Cytology Specimens for Cancer.


After a person is diagnosed with colorectal cancer, doctors will try to figure out if it has spread, and if so, how far. This process is called staging. The stage of a cancer describes how much disease is in the body. It helps determine how serious the cancer is and how best to treat it. For useful information about how colorectal cancer stage is determined, see the Colorectal Cancer Stages from the American Cancer Society.


Check out our previous blogs on Colorectal Cancer Screening and Colorectal Cancer Symptoms to learn more about how to detect early signs and symptoms of colorectal cancer.


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