Diagnostic procedures for colorectal cancer

If a person has symptoms that might be caused by colorectal cancer, the doctor will want to get a complete medical history and do a physical examination.  The doctor may also do certain tests to look for cancer.  Many of these tests are the same as those done to screen for colorectal cancer in people without symptoms.

  • Digital rectal examination (DRE) - a physician or healthcare provider inserts a gloved and lubricated finger into the rectum to feel for anything unusual or abnormal. This test can detect cancers of the rectum, but not the colon.

  • Fecal occult blood test - checks for hidden (occult) blood in the stool. It involves placing a very small amount of stool on a special card, which is then tested in the physician's office or sent to a laboratory.

  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy - a diagnostic procedure that allows the physician to examine the inside of a portion of the large intestine. A short, flexible, lighted tube, called a sigmoidoscope, is inserted into the intestine through the rectum. The scope blows air into the intestine to inflate it and make viewing the inside easier.

  • Colonoscopy - a procedure that allows the physician to view the entire length of the large intestine. It involves inserting a colonoscope, a long, flexible, lighted tube, in through the rectum up into the colon. The colonoscope allows the physician to see the lining of the colon, remove tissue for further examination, and possibly treat some problems that are discovered.

  • Barium enema - a fluid called barium (a metallic, chemical, chalky, liquid used to coat the inside of organs so that they will show up on an x-ray) is given into the rectum to partially fill up the colon. An x-ray of the abdomen shows strictures (narrowed areas), obstructions (blockages), and other problems.

  • Biopsy - a procedure in which tissue samples are removed (during a colonoscopy or surgery) from the body for examination under a microscope; to determine if cancer or other abnormal cells are present.

  • Blood count - a test to check for anemia (a result of bleeding from a tumor).

  • Imaging tests - tests such as a CT scan, ultrasound, or MRI of the abdomen may be done to look for tumors or other problems. These tests may also be done if colorectal cancer has already been diagnosed to help determine the extent (stage) of the cancer.

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