Men and women approaching age 50 often shudder when their doctor informs them it’s almost time for a screening colonoscopy. But regular screening, beginning at age 50, is the key to preventing colorectal cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States, reports the American Cancer Society. And, when men and women are combined, it’s the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.
The good news is that with early detection – through a colonoscopy – the survival rate dramatically increases. If colon cancer is detected before it spreads, the five-year survival rate is about 90 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute, but if not caught before the cancer spreads to other organs, the survival rate dips to about 10 percent.
What is a colonoscopy?
A colonoscopy is a procedure that allows a doctor, usually a gastroenterologist, to see inside the colon and rectum. Used as either a screening test or a diagnostic tool, it can help your doctor investigate early signs of cancer in the colon and rectum, as well as help diagnose the causes of unexplained changes in bowel habits such as abdominal pain, rectal bleeding and weight loss. While you’re sedated, the doctor will insert a long, thin, flexible lighted tube (a colonoscope) into your rectum and slowly guide it into your colon. The scope transmits an image of the inside of the colon onto a screen so the doctor can carefully examine the lining of the colon.
If anything abnormal is observed, such as a polyp (growth), it is painlessly removed at that time and later tested in a laboratory for signs of cancer. Since most colorectal cancer begins as a polyp, removing polyps early is an effective prevention method. Your doctor can also take samples from abnormal-looking tissues (a biopsy) so that suspicious areas can be examined.
A colonoscopy takes 30 to 60 minutes, but you will need to remain at your doctor’s facility for one to two hours until the sedative wears off.
Most common risk factors?
Risk level for colon cancer varies according to age, gender, ethnic background, and overall health and lifestyle. Factors that increase your risk level include, being age 50 or older, being African-American, having certain digestive diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis), having a family or personal history of polyps or colorectal cancer, eating a high-fat diet, or having type 2 (usually non-insulin dependent) diabetes
In addition, if you are physically inactive, obese, or a smoker, you have a greater chance of developing colorectal cancer. Increasing your activity level may help reduce your risk.
The American Cancer Society recommends that screening for colon cancer should begin at age 50 for both men and women who are of average risk for developing colorectal cancer. Your doctor can advise you about the right time to begin, as well as testing frequency, but standard guidelines suggest that a repeat screening be conducted every 10 years for adults with normal risk. People at higher risk of developing colorectal cancer may need to be tested earlier than age 50 and more frequently, as determined by your doctor.
(Editor’s Note: Paul R. Butler, M.D. is a board-certified gastroenterologist practicing with Northwest Allied Physicians. He is a member
of the medical staff at Oro Valley Hospital. The office phone is 901-6336 or www.mytucsondoc.com.)