We all remember when Katie Couric got a colonoscopy on national TV in March of 2000, but even with all of her efforts to increase the awareness of colon cancer, it is still estimated that only about 40% of people who should be screened for colon cancer, actually are.
Almost 60,000 people per year die from colon cancer, and it is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in United States. What most people don’t realize is that this disease is one of the few cancers that are preventable. If colon cancer is detected in its early stages, the five-year survival is over 90%. Women are affected by this disease almost as much as men are, and the incidence seems to increase with age. Although this disease is rarely seen before the age of 40, family history or other factors may increase the likelihood of getting the disease at a younger age.
The best thing you can do to prevent this disease is to get a screening colonoscopy. If you have no family history of colon cancer and are otherwise healthy, you should receive your first colonoscopy at the age of 50. It is now recommended that African Americans should receive their first colonoscopy by the age of 45.
Risk factors for colon cancer include family history, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, smoking history, alcohol abuse, prior radiation history to the colon and possibly dietary factors such as consumption of large amounts of red meats and saturated fats.
There are many reasons people choose not to get a colonoscopy, however many of these reasons are based on misconceptions about the procedure. For a typical colonoscopy, your doctor would place you on a clear liquid diet the day before the procedure. You should be able to go to work the day before the procedure. On the evening prior, the patient would take a bowel prep, which is usually a liquid and pill combination that would cause some diarrhea to clean out your colon. For the colonoscopy, the patient would receive anesthesia, which will prevent you from feeling pain during the procedure. The procedure itself takes about 20-30 minutes. Your gastroenterologist is looking for polyps, which are growths that can occur in the colon. These polyps can sometimes become cancerous. If they are found during the colonoscopy, they can be removed during the procedure, to prevent colon cancer. Depending on what is found during the initial colonoscopy, the procedure is usually repeated 3-5 years later.
I hope this dispels some of the fears that people may have about getting a colonoscopy. My goal is to educate the public about the importance of screening. If nothing else comes out of this article, I hope that it prompts at least one person who would otherwise never have gotten a colonoscopy, to get one done. The life you save may be your own.
Dr. Gingold and his partners can be reached at Digestive HealthCare Center, in Hillsborough, New Jersey. 908-218-9222