By Dr. Philip M. Joson, Southwest Gastroenterology Associates
No ifs, ands or buts about it–routine screening for colorectal cancer saves lives. Just recently, the results of a national study that followed more than 2,600 patients for as long as 23 years added the latest and clearest evidence. As reported in The New England Journal of Medicine, the death rate from colorectal cancer was cut by more than half among those who underwent screening and had precancerous growths, called polyps, removed.
This is great news, considering that colorectal cancer is the fourth most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. for both women and men. The best approach is to prevent it–or at least catch it early, when it’s much easier to cure. Most early colorectal cancers produce no symptoms, making routine screening even more important.
That’s because chances are by the time you notice symptoms, the cancer may be more advanced and difficult to treat.
Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence supporting the preventive power of screening, about 40 percent of adults who should get screened still don’t.
Age and other risk factors
Since the risk of colorectal cancer increases with age, men and women typically should begin screening at age 50. If no polyps are found, additional screening can be done every 10 years. If polyps are found, your doctor will schedule your next screening sooner, generally within three to five years, depending on the size, type and number of polyps removed.
People at higher risk for developing colorectal cancer should begin screening at an earlier age. For example, if you have a family history of the disease, particularly a parent, sibling or child, you should begin screening either at age 40 or 10 years before the age your relative’s cancer was diagnosed. Digestive conditions such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis also increase risk, requiring more frequent screening.
Talk with your physician about the best screening test for your particular needs. Colonoscopy is the most commonly recommended cancer prevention test because colonoscopy not only detects cancer, but more importantly can prevent cancer by removing polyps. Other screening tests to detect colorectal cancer include fecal immunochemical test, flexible sigmoidoscopy, CT colonoscopy, double contrast barium enema and fecal DNA testing.
In addition to routine screening, there is some evidence that you can protect yourself against colorectal cancer by exercising regularly, avoiding smoking and maintaining a healthy weight. You may also reduce your risk by eating a healthy low-fat, high-fiber diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, and avoiding or minimizing red and processed meats, charbroiled meat and fish, and beer.
As a physician, I’ve probably heard every possible excuse for putting off a colonoscopy or other screening, despite a range of new, improved options that makes preparing for the tests easier than ever. But facts are facts–colorectal cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancer, as long as you get screened regularly. Saving your life might be just as simple as going ahead and scheduling that appointment.
Dr. Philip Joson is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology. He has been in practice with Southwest Gastroenterology Associates since 1992.