That's the question a team of researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) are trying to answer. If it proves accurate, a simple urine test to diagnose colon cancer may provide a cheaper, less invasive alternative to colonoscopy-currently the gold standard for effective early screening of colon cancer.

The researchers analyzed urine samples from 123 people, 60 with colon cancer and 63 without the disease, using a new science known as metabolomics. Metabolomics is the study of small molecule metabolites, the chemical process in which the body breaks down organic matter. The scientists looked at about 500 different metabolites and found unusual levels of 16 substances in the urine of the cancer patients, including higher levels of tryptophan, one of the 22 amino acids found in proteins.

"We believe these metaboliotes can be further developed as biomarkers to identify cancer as well as to evaluate the stage of the cancer, which could help guide treatment," said Wei Jia, Ph.D., co-director of the UNCG Center for Research Excellence in Bioactive Food Components and lead investigator of the study, in a press release.

While the research findings look promising as a potential first step to developing a urine test for diagnosing colorectal cancer, the American Cancer Society (ACS) warns that such a test may be years away-if ever-from seeing clinical use.

Colorectal Screenings Can Save Your Life

The third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, colorectal cancer (of the colon or rectum) is highly curable when caught early. While the ACS guidelines call for colon screening to begin at age 50 (earlier if there's a family history of colon cancer) through a combination procedure of an annual fecal occult blood test and a flexible sigmoidoscopy, other medical experts prefer colonoscopy, in which a thin, flexible tube is used to examine the whole colon. Plus, if any precancerous polyps are found during the examination, they can be removed, preventing colon cancer from ever developing.

Check with your doctor to determine what type of colorectal screening is right for you and when you should start getting screened.

Colon Cancer-Fighting Foods

To help prevent colon cancer, the ACS recommends eating a diet low in saturated fat and high in these foods:

  • Green leafy vegetables, such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts and broccoli; root vegetables, such as carrots, beets, onions and potatoes; and legumes (beans and peas
  • Seed fruits like apples, cherries, peaches, pears, nectarines and grapes; citrus fruits such as oranges, grapefruits and lemons; melons, such as honeydew, watermelon and cantaloupe
  • Whole grains, such as wheat, rice, oats and corn