March is colorectal cancer awareness month. What you may not realize, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States – resulting in an estimated 50,000 deaths during 2018 alone. When caught early, it is also one of the most treatable.
A common screening can save lives, but embarrassment and anxiety keep many people from seeking this relatively simple procedure: colonoscopy.
Screening Saves Lives
The American Cancer Society says there will be 145,600 new cases of colorectal cancer (cancers of the colon or rectum) in the U.S. in 2019. If caught early, survival rates are 90 percent. A colonoscopy, one of several screening options for colorectal cancer, is recommended for most people starting at age 50. It allows surgeons to search the colon for polyps, the first indicator of cancer.
“Typically, polyps start small. As they grow, cells can change to become cancerous. That is why early detection is best,” said Kelly Hewitt, MD, of Samaritan Surgical Specialists - Newport. “A colonoscopy allows us to see the entire colon, and when we find a polyp it can be removed right then.”
A colonoscopy is considered a low-risk procedure, but like most medical tests, can prompt anxiety. C.J. Drake of Newport said he was anxious before his first colonoscopy.
“At age 51, this was my first colonoscopy and my first visit to a hospital in many years. I was nervous about it, but the staff at Samaritan Pacific Communities Hospital made me feel comfortable and well cared for,” he said. “With a deft sense of humor, they also dispelled any apprehension I felt about the procedure.”
What to Expect When You Schedule a Colonoscopy
Preparation for a colonoscopy is usually the most unpleasant aspect of the test.
“The day before, the patient drinks clear liquids and a medication that completely empties the colon, and that can be uncomfortable,” Dr. Hewitt said.
Once in the procedure room, the screening generally takes less than an hour. A long, flexible instrument called a colonoscope is inserted into the rectum and advanced through the colon and large intestine. A tiny camera and light on the end of the colonoscope allow the physician to visually inspect the colon on a digital monitor. Pictures can also be taken for future comparison and small tissue samples are occasionally removed for biopsy. A patient can be awake, but most choose to be mildly sedated.
“Patients often tell us it was the best nap they ever had,” Dr. Hewitt said.
If there are no polyps, and no family history of colon cancer, a repeat test isn’t needed for 10 years. If polyps are precancerous or cancerous your physician will recommend an earlier repeat colonoscopy and potentially other treatment, depending on polyp size and type.
“It really is important to get a colonoscopy,” Drake noted. “Don’t let fear keep you from doing it.”
Additional Colon Screening
In addition to a colonoscopy, other screening options include: stool tests – a sample is often collected at home and then returned to a lab (recommended every 1 to 3 years), flexible sigmoidoscopy – similar to a colonoscopy, but a shorter scope is used (recommended every 5 years, and in combination with a stool test) and a virtual colonoscopy – uses x-rays and computer images of the entire colon, which are examined by a medical professional (recommended every 5 years). If polyps are discovered using any of these alternate screening options, a complete colonoscopy is recommended.
Early detection truly matters! Talk with your primary care provider about which screening option may be right for you, especially if you have any family history of colon cancer.