At-Home Colorectal Cancer Tests: Pros and Cons for Early Detection

Colorectal cancer, often referred to as colon cancer, is a serious disease that can be life-threatening if not detected and treated early. Early detection is key, as it provides a better chance of successful treatment before the cancer can grow and spread to other parts of the body. While getting your colonoscopy in Melbourne from your colorectal surgeon remains the gold standard for screening, at-home colorectal cancer tests have gained popularity as an alternative screening method. These tests offer convenience and accessibility, but they also come with certain limitations. In this article, a leading female surgeon explores the world of at-home colon cancer tests, discussing their types, advantages, disadvantages, and their role in the early detection of this deadly disease.

What Is an at-home colon cancer test?

An at-home colon cancer test is a stool-based screening method that individuals can perform in the comfort and privacy of their homes. The process involves collecting stool samples, which are then sent to a laboratory for analysis. If the test results are positive, it is crucial to follow up with a colorectal surgeon for a colonoscopy, which is the most accurate diagnostic procedure for colorectal cancer.

There are several types of at-home colon cancer tests

  • Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT): This test employs a chemical called guaiac to detect hidden blood in the stool. It is typically performed annually and can be obtained from a healthcare provider, through the Australian Cancer Council, or over the counter without a prescription. FOBT requires collecting stool samples from three bowel movements. However, it cannot pinpoint the source of the blood, whether it originates from the colon, rectum, or other parts of the digestive tract.

Preparation for FOBT involves dietary restrictions, such as avoiding red meat for three days, limiting vitamin C intake, and abstaining from nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications for seven days.

  • Faecal Immunochemical Test (FIT): FIT is also performed annually and utilises antibodies to detect blood in the stool. Unlike FOBT, it is less affected by dietary and medication factors, which contributes to more accurate results. FIT tests are typically obtained through healthcare providers.
  • FIT-DNA Test (Cologuard): The FIT-DNA test combines FIT with a DNA analysis of stool samples. This test can be conducted every three years and is available by prescription only. Cologuard, a well-known example of the FIT-DNA test, boasts a 92% accuracy rate in detecting colon cancer.

Advantages of at-home colon cancer tests

  • Non-invasive: At-home colon cancer tests offer a non-invasive screening option. Many people worry about going for a colonoscopy, although they shouldn’t be, and it’s important to remember that you can see a female surgeon if that helps. Most of these tests require individuals to collect stool samples without any extensive preparation. Only FOBT necessitates dietary changes prior to the test.
  • Cost and convenience: Some people may find that getting a colonoscopy in Melbourne is difficult to prepare for or costly. At-home tests offer a more affordable and convenient option, making early screening accessible to a broader population.
  • Early detection for younger adults: Colorectal cancer is increasingly affecting younger individuals. At-home tests can help initiate the screening process for those who may not meet the age criteria for routine colonoscopies, which were previously recommended starting at age 50 but are now recommended at age 45. This is especially important for people who have a family history of colon cancer or are otherwise considered higher risk for this cancer.

Disadvantages of at-home testing for colorectal cancer

  • Accuracy: At-home colon cancer tests are not infallible. They can yield false-positive or false-negative results. Approximately 10% to 15% of these tests may produce false positives, potentially causing unnecessary anxiety and follow-up procedures with your colorectal surgeon.
  • Inability to detect polyps: At-home tests cannot detect colon polyps, some of which can be precursors to cancer. Consequently, a false-negative result may provide a false sense of security.
  • Frequency of testing: FOBT and FIT tests must be conducted every 2 years, while the FIT-DNA test is done every three years. In contrast, a colonoscopy is typically recommended only once every 10 years for individuals with an average risk. This frequent testing requirement can be a drawback for some individuals.

Early detection is crucial in the fight against colorectal cancer, as it significantly increases the chances of successful treatment. At-home colon cancer tests offer a convenient and accessible screening option for many individuals. They are non-invasive, covered by insurance or even free in many cases, and suitable for younger adults who may not meet the age criteria for colonoscopy. However, these tests are not without limitations. They may produce false results, cannot detect polyps, and require more frequent testing than colonoscopy.

Ultimately, the choice between at-home colon cancer tests and a colonoscopy in Melbourne should be made in consultation with your doctor or colorectal surgeon, taking into account individual risk factors, preferences, and considerations. Regardless of the method chosen, regular screening is essential to catch colorectal cancer in its early stages, when it is most treatable. Early detection saves lives, and these tests play a valuable role in achieving that goal. Remember, if it helps you feel more comfortable, you can always request a female surgeon.