When we think of cancer prevention, we typically think of those we hear the most about, such as breast cancer or lung cancer. One of the most common cancers is actually colon cancer: cancer of the large intestine and lower part of the digestive system. It is the fourth most common cancer diagnosed and the second-leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. – and early detection dramatically increases the survival rate.
An estimated 150,000 new cases of colorectal cancer are expected this year. If detected before it spreads, the five-year survival rate is about 90 percent – but if not caught before this point, the survival rate is lower.
It’s estimated that as many as 60 percent of colon cancer deaths could be prevented if all men and women ages 45 and up received routine colonoscopy screenings.
The exact causes of colon cancer are unknown. One of the most important preventive steps is to get a colonoscopy, a screening test to detect any signs of cancer. A colonoscopy is a procedure to see inside the colon and rectum.
Merit Health has taken steps to make it easier than ever to schedule a colonoscopy. By creating a direct phone number to their colonoscopy scheduling clinic, patients can now call and schedule their own colonoscopy – without a doctor’s referral.
“A colonoscopy used as a screening test or a diagnostic tool, can help providers investigate unusual symptoms such as unexplained changes in bowel habits, abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, and weight loss,” says George Smith-Vaniz, M.D., a gastroenterologist with Merit Health Medical Group. “It is important to follow up on any changes even if you think they might not be important at the time.”
If polyps (growths) are found during the exam, they are quickly and painlessly removed at that time, and later tested in a laboratory for signs of cancer. Polyps are common in adults, and usually harmless. However, most colorectal cancer begins as a polyp, so removing polyps early is an effective prevention method. Your doctor can also take samples from abnormal-looking tissues – a biopsy – during the colonoscopy, so that any suspicious areas can be examined for signs of disease and treated, if necessary.
“We now recommend a routine colonoscopy screening for all adult men and women beginning at age 45, or earlier, if you have specific risk factors,” adds Dr. Smith-Vaniz. “Over the last 20 years, we have seen an increase of diagnosis under the age of 50. About 1 in 10 now falls into that age category so it’s as important as ever.”
A provider can provide guidance about the right time to begin and the frequency of testing, but industry guidelines suggest that a repeat screening be conducted every 10 years for adults with normal risk.
Your risk level for colon cancer varies according to your age, gender and ethnic background, as well as your overall health and lifestyle. Factors that affect your risk level include:
Advancing age (over age 45)
African American ethnic status
A family or personal history of polyps (growths inside the rectum or colon), or colorectal cancer
A high-fat diet
Certain digestive diseases, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis
Depending on your age, a colonoscopy screening may be a covered “wellness” test under your insurance plan – and most plans cover a colonoscopy completely as a follow-up test or diagnostic tool. Check with your insurance provider and your doctor’s office for help in scheduling a screening exam.
Learn more about Merit Health’s colonoscopy services or schedule your colonoscopy by calling (601) 376-COLO (2656).