March has arrived once again, and as we turn our thoughts toward warm-weather outdoors activities, I wanted to take a moment to remind you that March is also Colon Cancer Awareness Month. Many of us have loved ones who have been affected by colon cancer. Indeed, colorectal cancer is second only to lung cancer as the leading cause of cancer deaths in America. While many of us are familiar with the basics of this cancer, not enough of us are aware that colorectal cancer can be prevented, not just detected, through colonoscopy.
Colorectal cancer usually begins as a pre-cancerous growth (polyp) that slowly grows into the colon wall over several years. When detected early, a polyp can be removed with a simple procedure, halting its progression to colorectal cancer. While early detection of any cancer is important, preventing a cancer from ever occurring is even more powerful.
Who should be screened for colon cancer? The simple answer is everyone between the ages of 50 and 75. However, other high-risk groups should be screened at a younger age. African-Americans are at higher risk for colorectal cancer and should start screening at age 45. Those with a family history of colon cancer or with other medical conditions may also need to start screening at a younger age. Talk to your doctor to discuss the appropriate age for screening in your own personal situation.
Certain symptoms should also prompt you to discuss colonoscopy with your doctor, as these symptoms might prompt earlier testing. Warning signs include rectal bleeding, abdominal pain, or significant changes in bowel habits.
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So how are Idahoans doing in terms of preventing colon cancer? The answer is mixed. Colorectal cancer screening has reduced the incidence of colon cancer almost 30 percent over the past 20 years, but we can do so much better. Despite intensive efforts nationwide, one out of every three adults between the ages of 50 and 75 — almost 23 million Americans — is not getting tested for colorectal cancer as recommended. Thanks to improved awareness, Idaho’s screening rates are increasing, but we still lag significantly behind the national average.
According to the American Cancer Society, the colon cancer death rate in this country could be cut in half if all Americans simply followed recommended screening guidelines. During the last year alone, more than 50,000 people died of colorectal cancer in the United States, and many of those deaths would have been completely preventable through colorectal cancer screening.
Current guidelines suggest multiple colon cancer screening options, including stool tests, barium enema and colonoscopy. Any colon cancer screening strategy is better than none at all, but each test has its own pros and cons. The American College of Gastroenterology recommends colonoscopy as the preferred cancer prevention strategy because this test can both detect polyps and remove them during the same procedure. So please remember to discuss colon cancer screening with your doctor at your next visit — it could save your life.
Dr. Mark A. Mallory is with The Digestive Health Clinic Idaho and is governor for the American College of Gastroenterology.