Colon cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in men and women in the United States, according to American Cancer Society. Screenings are highly recommended for early detection, but many people dread these uncomfortable procedures which often involve inserting a tube in the rectum. New research published in JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute suggests there may be a less invasive, but effective way to get a colonoscopy.

Virtual colonoscopy is a medical imaging or x-ray test performed by the radiology department of a medical center that looks for cancer, polyps , in the colon, according to MedlinePlus.

“Virtual colonoscopy is a great test. It’s a good data-supported test that performs the essential function of allowing people to get screened for an entirely preventable disease, which, as you know, is colon cancer,” Dr. Michael Zalis of Massachusetts General Hospital, told WBZ NewsRadio 1030 in an interview earlier this year.

A study led by Dr. Lapo Sali of the University of Florence looked at data from a randomized controlled trial involving more than 16,000 patients aged 54 to 65 years old to compare different screening methods for colorectal cancer. The biennial fecal immunochemical test (FIT), in which doctors test blood in a patients stool, the virtual tests: reduced (r-CTC,) and full cathartic preparation CT colonography (f-CTC,) and optical colonoscopy were the four methods tested.

The detection rates precancerous polyps — abnormal tissue growth in the colon or rectum — were 1.7 percent for first-round FIT, 5.5 percent for r-CTC, 4.9 percent for f-CTC, and 7.2 percent for OC.

Participation rates were different across the four screening methods with 50.4 percent of patients tried first-round FIT, 28.1 percent did r-CTC, 25.2 percent went for f-CTC, and 14.8 percent tried OC. However, the two virtual tests, r-CTC and f-CTC, which each had less participants than the FIT, detected more precancerous polyps.

“The combination of lower attendance and higher [detection rates] of screening CTC as compared with FIT are key factors for the optimization of its role in population screening of CRC,” researchers concluded.

Doctors recommend screening for colon cancer, which he second leading cancer killer in the United States, because it can help doctors detect precancerous polyps that can be removed before turning into cancer. Screening also helps find colorectal cancer at an early stage, when treatment often leads to a cure.

Source: Sali S, Mascalachi M, Falchini M, et al. Reduced and Full-Preparation CT Colonography, Fecal Immunochemical Test, and Colonoscopy for Population Screening of Colorectal Cancer: A Randomized Trial. JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2015 .