Ask The Doctor

Colonoscopy Screens Save Lives

Dear Dr. Garner,
I have colon cancer, which has spread to other parts of my body, and I am undergoing painful chemotherapy.
The worst part is that this all could have been much easier to treat had it been found much earlier.
I am now 65 and while my husband went for a colonoscopy when he turned 50, I kept putting it off.
The first sign I had was bleeding when I went to the bathroom. By that time I was also having trouble with bowel movements, as my tumor had grown so big that it was actually causing a blockage.
I hope that others reading this will learn from my mistake. It is not only unfair to yourself, but your family also, not to be tested for it.
Hoping to Help Others in Howard Beach

Dear Hoping to Help,
I am sorry to hear about your situation. Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in men and women.
The good news is that if caught early, it can be easily treated.
Right now there are 50,000 deaths in the United States each year. Most of these could have been saved with the proper screening.
Signs of colon cancer include: a change in bowel habits; a feeling that the bowel doesn’t empty properly; blood in the stool; and stool that looks thinner than normal.
Unfortunately, by the time the above symptoms occur, the cancer is usually advanced.
Most colon cancers occur in people with no risk factors; however, there are some conditions which place a person at higher risk than the rest of the population. These include: a family history of cancer of the colon; having Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis; and having certain inherited conditions, which affect many people in the same family.
For the most part, everyone over 50 years of age is at risk for developing colon cancer — not just those in the high-risk groups mentioned.
Studies continue to show (a major one actually was released last week) that having regular screening tests for colon cancer beginning at age 50 reduces deaths dramatically.
The screening tests can identify small growths known as polyps, which turn into cancer after many years. If they are removed early, a person’s life can be saved.
Studies have also shown that adopting healthy behaviors, such as: maintaining a healthy weight, staying physically active, and not smoking, can decrease your risk for colon cancer.
It is possible that making certain changes in diet, such as adding fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole-grain products may reduce the risk of colon cancer.
All this, however, cannot even approach the efficacy of a screening test in the treatment of colon cancer.
The screening test, known as a colonoscopy, should be performed at age 50 and repeated once every 10 years for most people. In this test a small tube is placed in the rectum while you are under mild sedation. It may be performed before age 50, depending on your individual situation such as a family history of cancer.
There are other tests available which may help as well, such as a yearly test to see if there is blood in the stool. However, can you imagine that just one colonoscopy every 10 years can put an end to most cancers of the colon?
You should speak with your doctor to see when and how frequently you should have your colon checked. There may be other tests your doctor can offer which may not be as useful, but I don’t even want to mention them in this column because most people should be able to tolerate the gold standard of colonoscopy.
In summary, I hope your letter will spur people to get this life-saving screening. Remember, polyps take many years to turn malignant so having a colonoscopy every decade starting at age 50 is usually recommended.[hr] Dr. Steven Garner, a Fidelis Care provider, is affiliated with New York Methodist Hospital, Park Slope. He also hosts “Ask the Doctor” on The NET, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Channel 97 Time Warner and Channel 30 Cablevision.

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