Many of my patients ask why they should be screened for colon cancer. They tell me that they feel fine and don’t want to look for trouble. They tell me they don’t have any relatives with colon cancer, so they don’t think they are at risk. They tell me they don’t have the time or money for a colonoscopy.
I understand all of these objections and concerns, but colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in this country. We can have a big impact by screening for this disease in healthy people over the age of 50.
According to the American Cancer Society, those whose colon cancer is detected by screening have a 90 percent survival rate. In contrast, those whose colon cancer is detected by symptoms have a 10 percent survival rate. This is a disease that can be cured when caught in its asymptomatic stages.
Even though you may have no symptoms, simply being over the age of 50 puts you at risk for colon cancer. The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommends screening for colon cancer between the ages of 50 and 75. If you are older than 75, it is an individual decision to discuss with your healthcare provider.
A colonoscopy is not the only way to screen for colon cancer. The other method is a stool test, called a FIT test or hemoccult test. These are cards that we give you at the doctor’s office. You give a sample of your stool on the card. It requires one to three stool samples, depending upon the type of test. You turn these in to the doctor’s office and we test for microscopic blood in the stool. If it is clear, you are covered for colon cancer screening for one year. This is an annual test in order to be valid. If you test positive for microscopic blood, you will be sent for a complete colonoscopy.
A colonoscopy is a scope of the whole colon. During the test, the doctor is looking for polyps which can go on to become cancers. If they find any, they can remove the polyps during the colonoscopy. In this way, the colonoscopy prevents cancer as well as screens for cancer. If you have a clean colon without any polyps, you are covered for 10 years of colon cancer screening. If you have a polyp removed, you will be asked to repeat the colonoscopy in 3-5 years depending upon the type and number of polyps.
In order to have an adequate colonoscopy, the person has to prepare the colon the day prior to the test. The person is on a clear liquid diet and has to drink a laxative that cleans out the colon. My patients tell me that this is the hard part. Actually going through the colonoscopy the next day is a breeze.
I encourage you to have a discussion with your healthcare provider about your need for colon cancer screening. Also discuss with your older relatives their history of colon cancer. If you discover that a family member has had colon cancer, your need to be screened is increased.
Dr. Michelle Khoury is a family physician at Madison Health Primary Care in London. To make an appointment, call 740-845-7500. The practice is currently accepting new patients, including adults and children.