By Jane-Claire Williams, M.D.
March is National Colon Cancer Awareness Month, and it’s a great time to get screened for this highly preventable disease! While colon cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths, it is also 90% curable when caught early. So what does that tell you? It’s important to be screened and catch this disease in its early stages.
Who Should Be Screened for Colon Cancer?
Everyone should have a colon cancer screening by his or her 50th birthday. However, some people should get screened earlier such as African Americans and individuals with a family history of colon cancer. African Americans are at a greater risk for colon cancer, so it’s recommended that they get a screening exam by age 45. If you have a close family member who has had colon cancer, you should be screened 10 years prior to the age your family member was diagnosed or at age 40, whichever comes first.
What are the Different Types of Screening Tests?
There are three main types of tests that are typically done to test for colon cancer and its precursor lesions. Each test offers different benefits; you should talk to your primary care physician to determine which is right for you, or contact us as GI Associates.
• Fecal Occult Blood Testing – This is a painless test your doctor may use to test for blood in the stool. The test is performed at home with a kit that your doctor will give you. If blood is found, it can be the sign of several different digestive conditions, so your doctor will order follow-up testing to discover the true problem.
• CT Colonography – This test uses X-rays to check for polyps inside the colon. It is performed by a radiologist. Although some patients prefer this test because it is non-invasive, it does not provide the same level of effectiveness in discovering smaller abnormal growths, and if polyps are discovered, they must still be removed in a separate procedure.
• Colonoscopy – This test remains the gold standard in colon screening. A colonoscopy allows the gastroenterologist to use a flexible tube to see into the patient’s colon. Not only can the doctor discover polyps during this test, we can also remove polyps while the patient is sedated, often eliminating the need for a follow-up procedure.
While colonoscopy is widely accepted as the best screening for colon cancer, many patients are hesitant because they are nervous about the prep and the procedure itself. I would like to set your mind at rest on this issue: it won’t be as bad as you think! Here’s why:
• Advances in Colonoscopy Prep – We now can offer a lower-volume prep for our patients who are concerned about having to drink so much liquid the night before the procedure.
• Sedation – We will sedate you during the colonoscopy and make sure that you are relaxed and pain-free throughout the procedure.
• Privacy and Convenience – Choosing to have your colonoscopy performed in a private clinic like GI Associates gives you more comfort and privacy than you would receive in a hospital setting. You will also get in and out quicker –most visits take less than two hours.
What Happens Next?
After your colonoscopy, our in-house pathologists will review any polyps we remove or biopsies we take. If your colonoscopy is normal or you have polyps that are not precancerous, and your prep is adequate, you do not have to have another colonoscopy for ten years. If precancerous polyps are removed, the screening interval is usually three to five years. If you are diagnosed with Stage One colon caner, we will refer you to a surgeon who will remove part of the colon. This usually cures the cancer. More advanced stages of colon cancer require surgery and/or chemotherapy for treatment.
How Can I Prevent Colon Cancer?
As with most cancers, the best chance of preventing colon cancer is to live a healthy lifestyle. Try to eat a high-fiber diet and stay at a healthy weight. Avoid smoking. Avoid too many grilled and smoked foods. If you notice any symptoms such as changes in bowel habits, unexplained weight loss, or blood in your stool, contact a gastroenterologist immediately.
There is no need for a doctor referral to schedule an appointment with GI Associates. If you are 50 and have not yet been screened for colon cancer, contact our office and we will get you set up for a screening. In most cases, insurance does pay for colonoscopy, so you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. You have a lot of living left to do—don’t miss out on your life!
Dr. Jane-Claire Williams is a gastroenterologist with GI Associates in Jackson, MS. She is board certified in internal medicine and gastroenterology.