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The Truth About Life Saving Colon Screenings

by Vivek Kumar, MD

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If there were a screening test that could dramatically decrease your risk for developing the second deadliest cancer in the United States, would you take it? According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey, roughly 30 percent of Pennsylvanians reported not being up-to-date on getting life-saving colorectal screenings. The test, called colonoscopy, is safe, covered by insurance, and very effective. Colon cancer can be prevented with a colonoscopy screening.

A colonoscopy is typically a 15 to 30 minute procedure, which is performed under sedation usually administered by a nurse or a physician. These procedures can be performed by a gastroenterologist or a general surgeon.

During the procedure, the provider examines the entire length of your colon using a long, flexible tube that has a camera. By using different devices through the “scope” most polyps can be removed during the procedure safely which often reduces the need for an additional surgery. Following the colonoscopy, the provider meets with the patient to report on findings and, if the screening was clean, makes recommendations for a future screening. If polyps are found, plans are made for a follow-up consultation after a biopsy. In very few cases patients experience minimal pain, much like the urge to go the bathroom, for a brief time following the procedure.

So why are people missing this test when it has proven so effective? There are myths that cause fear about the procedure. Some people are concerned about complications. While the risk of getting colon cancer is one in 20, the risk for a complication during a colonoscopy is 1 in 10,000.

Others are concerned about the test preparation—the strong laxatives taken in advance of the colonoscopy to clean the gastrointestinal tract so doctors have a clear view. In recent years improvements have made the preparation process shorter, beginning the night before, with newer, better tasting medications in smaller amounts.

While there are other tests for colon cancer, they do not have the preventive benefits of a colonoscopy. This includes the hemoccult test, which looks for blood in the stool and may detect cancer but does not detect cancer-causing polyps, and flexible sigmoidoscopy, which examines only a limited portion of the colon.

Because age is one of the greatest risk factors for colon cancer, age 50 is the standard age to receive a first colonoscopy. The screening results dictate intervals for subsequent tests ranging from one to ten years. The screening age for African Americans is 45 because they are at higher risk for developing colon cancer. Those with a family history of colorectal cancer may also need earlier screenings as determined by their doctor. Other indications to have a consultation with a gastroenterologist and possibly a colonoscopy include blood in the stools, anemia, weight loss, abdominal pain, and narrow stools.

If you or a loved one has delayed having a colonoscopy, it’s time to schedule this important, life saving medical test.

Dr. Vivek Kumar of the Digestive Disease Center at UPMC Susquehanna is certified in internal medicine and gastroenterology. He specializes in gastroenterology and colorectal services. For more information on colonoscopies and other screenings, visit UPMCSusquehanna.org/Colonoscopy.