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Colon cancer is the third-most commonly diagnosed cancer in U.S. adults, excluding skin cancers. And the trend of cancer in younger patients continues, with diagnoses and death rates on the rise in patients younger than 55.
So, if your New Year’s resolutions included better self-care, now is a great time to schedule a screening colonoscopy. The latest colon cancer screening guidelines from the American Cancer Society say that starting at age 45, patients at average risk of colorectal cancer need a colonoscopy every 10 years.
Colonoscopy is the gold-standard of colon cancer prevention: It’s a one-stop exam in which we can see potential issues in your colon, rule out or detect cancer, and remove suspicious polyps—abnormal growths that could become cancer—before they have time to grow and spread.
But there are options if getting a once-a-decade colonoscopy sounds unbearable. If you’ve never had colorectal cancer and have no other risk factors, you can choose from stool-based or visual exams every three years. However, if other testing shows something suspicious—or if you are at increased risk of colon cancer—you’ll still need to get a colonoscopy.
Patients in these categories likely are at increased risk of colon cancer and need earlier, more frequent colonoscopies:
- Black adult males: These men are 20% more likely to get colon cancer and 40% more likely to die from it than their peers
- Diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease
- Diagnosed with Lynch syndrome or other genetic predisposition to colorectal cancer
- Family or personal history of colorectal cancer
- Past radiation therapy to the pelvis or abdomen
- Personal history of abnormal polyps: These tissue growths could turn into cancer
If your doctor recommends that you schedule a colon cancer screening, listen to their advice. When we detect it early, colon cancer is 90% curable. Plus, there have been several updates in the last few years that might make you more inclined to schedule that potentially lifesaving appointment.
1. Non-colonoscopy screening options have gone mainstream.
While less invasive options such as the fecal occult blood test (FOBT) and stool DNA testing (Cologuard) have been available for several years, JAMA Network reports that interest in less-invasive options increased during the pandemic, and we don’t foresee that changing anytime soon.
For patients at average risk, FOBT and stool-based testing are fairly accurate—and they’re preferable to skipping colon cancer screening altogether. However, if your results suggest you might have cancer, you’ll need to get a colonoscopy.
Patients at increased risk of colorectal cancer, including those who have had cancer or suspicious polyps in the past, should also choose colonoscopy. Getting the gold-standard screening allows you the best chance at positive long-term outcomes.
During a colonoscopy, your doctor can remove suspicious polyps before they have a chance to grow into cancer. You won’t feel a thing because you’ll be sedated. Almost all our patients say the worst part is drinking fluids beforehand to clean out the colon—and even that process has improved in recent years.
2. Choose from lower-volume, tastier prep liquid options.
Most patients will agree that the colonoscopy procedure is relatively easy and painless, but the preparation is less than ideal—you’ll need to drink up to 4 liters of not very tasty liquid to fully empty your bowels the night or morning before your colonoscopy. The cleaner your insides, the better view your doctor can get of your colon tissue.
Lower-volume and better tasting colonoscopy prep liquids have hit the market over the last few years, offering patients a slightly more pleasant experience. However, concentrated versions aren’t safe for everyone. Patients with heart problems or kidney disease should avoid low-volume preps because of their magnesium content. Ask your doctor if lower-volume prep is an option for you.
If not, my advice is to hold your nose and drink the traditional prep. If you stir in a little sugar-free drink mix, the concoction might be more palatable.
Related reading: Five Ways to Make Colonoscopy Prep Easier
3. Providers are taking a renewed focus on rectal bleeding.
Bleeding from the anus or rectum should never be taken lightly. Even if you are think you just have hemorrhoids, go to the doctor to make sure.
Hemorrhoids can get serious quickly, causing infections and discomfort—treatment is fast and effective. On the rare chance that the bleeding is caused by something internal, it is far better to play it safe and get examined. The peace of mind alone will be worth the temporary discomfort of an exam.
MedStar Health gastroenterologists have always recommended that patients seek care for bleeding. But as younger adults are getting diagnosed with colon cancer, we’re doubling down on patient education efforts.
Younger adults might be more likely to shrug off symptoms or delay care to avoid missing work or family activities. The benefits of getting examined far outweigh the inconvenience of visiting the doctor—especially if we can identify and circumvent serious gastrointestinal complications.
#Colonoscopy is the gold-standard of #ColonCancer screening. It’s a one-stop exam where we can rule out or detect #cancer and remove suspicious #polyps before they can grow or spread. #ColonCancerMonth: https://bit.ly/3Jns1fB.Click to Tweet
4. Advanced screenings can treat some types of tumors.
The latest colon cancer screening options are pulling double duty as preventive and therapeutic procedures. Advanced procedures such as endoscopic mucosal resection (EMR) are done at MedStar Health.
Traditional colonoscopy can remove polyps, but EMR takes it one step further. EMR allows gastroenterologists to remove advanced polyps—and even some types of tumors in the stomach, small intestine, and colon—without surgery. Patients recover faster and experience less discomfort after this outpatient procedure than through traditional surgery. Other new techniques such as endoscopic mucosal dissection (ESDS) and similar procedures require specialized training, and we expect providers to offer this procedure more widely over the next 5-10 years.
If it’s time for your colon cancer screening, talk with your doctor about all your options to reduce your risk. Colon cancer is highly treatable if we catch it early. And the best early detection method we have is regular colon cancer screening.