In case you didn’t know, this is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.
Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in the United States. The average risk of developing colorectal cancer is roughly 1 in 20, but varies significantly according to individual risk factors, such as age (rate increases as we get older), ethnicity, family history, low-fiber, high-fat diet and sedentary lifestyle.
But colon cancer is highly treatable if detected early and largely preventable if you get screened regularly. Medical experts recommend men and women over the age of 50 (45 for African-Americans) get screened on a regular basis: once every 10 years if no problems are found, more frequently if there are.
Human colon cancer cells. Image courtesy of National Institutes of Health.
Over the past decade, it’s estimated that screenings have reduced the risk of colon cancer by 77 percent. Unfortunately, it’s also estimated that 40 percent of at-risk persons have never been screened — for many reasons beyond the obvious. Here are the top five, according to various surveys:
- Fear. The test is, uh, memorable — at least until the anesthesia kicks in. Drinking the preparation fluid to cleanse the bowel is no fun, but newer products have significantly reduced the amount needed. (One expert’s tip: Your taste buds are on the front two-thirds of your tongue, so if you use a flexible straw and put the end of the straw at the back of your tongue you can swallow the prep without tasting it. Chilling the solution helps too.) Some people worry that the test is painful. A colonoscopy is an invasive procedure, but technologies are much improved and miniaturized and almost always conducted while the patient is sedated. Most patients don’t even recall the procedure. (Important tip: Have a family member with you to hear the doctor’s findings and recommendations. You won’t remember them. You probably won’t remember the doctor even talking to you.)
- Patients say they have no family history of colorectal cancer, and so they aren’t at risk. Groups like the American Cancer Society recommend screening for all individuals at average risk.
- Screening is only for those with symptoms. Most people who have colon cancer — or the polyps that could potentially turn malignant — do not have symptoms, which often manifest only in later and deadlier stages of the disease.
- Cost. Health insurance covers most costs.
- It’s a hassle taking time off from work; the preparation is unpleasant; you need someone to give you a ride home after the screening; it’s embarrassing. Ask a patient with colorectal cancer whether these still sound like good reasons not to be screened.
Bottom line: Get screened.
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