Colorectal cancer is one of the most common cancer diagnoses, but thankfully increased screening has led to more patients receiving life-saving treatment.
Colonoscopies are the gold standard in screening for cancers of the colon and rectum. The procedure is so effective because it is both diagnostic and therapeutic. During a colonoscopy, a physician can identify and locate most pre-cancerous polyps and suspicious tissue, and then remove them. Colonoscopies allow us to catch cancer earlier, when it is most treatable.
Removing Polyps Can Be Life-Saving
Most colorectal cancers start as polyps on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. Removing them before they become invasive can head off serious illness. Such early intervention is not possible with most cancers, therefore, a colonoscopy is a major benefit in preventing disease and death.
Still, more than 50,000 people die of colorectal cancer annually in the United States. It is most often found in people 50 or older, but the incidence of the disease in younger people has been increasing. Many experts – including myself - now recommend that screenings for colorectal cancer begin at 45 and continue through age 75.
The simplest screening is a stool test that can be done as part of an annual physical exam, even prior to age 45. Another diagnostic procedure that is less invasive than a colonoscopy, called a flexible sigmoidoscopy, can be used to view the rectum and part of the colon. A CT colonography, a so called “virtual colonoscopy,” uses a CT scan to create a view of the large intestine. If anything suspicious is found during any of these screenings, a colonoscopy will be recommended.
If you have an increased risk or a family history of colorectal cancer, your physician may recommend a colonoscopy even earlier than age 45. If you have a first-degree family member (parent, sibling, or child) who had colon cancer you should begin screening at age 40 or ten years before the age at which your relative was diagnosed.
If you have any of these gastrointestinal symptoms, you should make an appointment with your primary care physician or a gastroenterologist:
- rectal bleeding
- abdominal pain or bloating
- excessive diarrhea or any changes in bowel movements
Don’t Fear ‘The Prep’
Don’t be afraid to get a colonoscopy because of the preparation of induced diarrhea to clean the colon the day before. “The prep” has become more tolerable in recent years. Think of it as a mild inconvenience when it can be part of a life-saving procedure.
The colonoscopy itself is an outpatient procedure and generally can be completed within an hour. You will be lightly sedated, and the doctor will use a thin, flexible, lighted tube to check for polyps, ulcers, inflammation, or cancer inside your rectum and entire colon. If any polyps are found, they will be removed and biopsied to check for any cancerous changes. You may have some bloating or gas afterward since air is used to inflate the colon for the procedure. But that discomfort won’t last long.
Once you have had your first colonoscopy, if you do not have an increased risk of colorectal cancer, you can schedule your next one in 10 years. Your doctor will recommend more frequent screenings if anything was found during the procedure.
Some people have delayed having routine cancer screenings during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is understandable, but keep in mind that facilities – including Holy Name Medical Center – are following strict public health guidelines to keep patients safe. As more people are vaccinated, you should feel more confident in going for a colonoscopy or other screenings.
A colonoscopy is an opportunity to undergo an effective early intervention for cancer. Don’t put it off!
Jason C. Lee, M.D., is a fellowship-trained hematologist-oncologist, who specializes in the treatment of gastrointestinal malignancies, including cancers of the esophagus, stomach, liver, pancreas, colon, and rectum. Dr. Lee has participated in clinical trials and been published in a number of medical journals. His office is located in the Patricia Lynch Cancer Center at Holy Name.
To make an appointment with Dr. Lee, call 201-928-0200 or visit HolyNameMedicalPartners.org.
To make an appointment for a colonoscopy with a Holy Name gastroenterologist or colorectal surgeon, visit HolyNameMedicalPartners.org.