The American Cancer Society reports that nearly 150,000 Americans are diagnosed with colon cancer each year, and 50,000 people die from it. Colon cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer, and the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths. This doesn’t have to be the case. The great majority of these cancers and deaths could be prevented through the use of established screening tests for colon cancer.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data, less than 50% of the at-risk population is getting screened, and approximately 42 million average-risk Americans have not undergone a validated screening test. Many more lives could be potentially saved.
The risk of colon cancer increases with advancing age. Sixty-five is the average age at diagnosis, and the peak occurrence is in the seventh decade of life. An estimated 80% of colon cancer is sporadic, without any genetic or inheritable component, but genetic colon cancer syndromes do exist.
In the early stages of colon cancer development, when we really have the best chance at preventing it, people often have minimal or no symptoms. Therefore, the American Cancer Society recommends average risk patients at age 50 be screened even if they feel fine. For above-average risk patients—patients with a history of colon cancer or colon polyps in a first-degree relative (mother, father, brother or sister), screening should start at age 40, or 10 years before the age of diagnosis in the first-degree relative. A history of multiple relatives with colon cancer at early ages should prompt patients to consult a gastroenterologist for consideration of genetic syndromes.
Risk factors for colon cancer include inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis) and a personal history or family history of colon cancer or polyps. Lifestyle factors such as smoking, high alcohol consumption, obesity, high-fat diet and, to a lesser extent, lack of exercise and low-fiber diet may contribute.
Screening for colon cancer
Colonoscopy is the most effective screening method for finding and removing colon polyps. Polyps are non-cancerous growths in the lining of the colon or rectum that can have the potential to become colon cancer. Therefore removing polyps can prevent colon cancer before it starts. Patient risk for colon cancer related death is reduced up to 90% by undergoing colonoscopy. Colonoscopy is widely available and covered by most if not all insurance plans, including Medicare, for colorectal cancer screening. The new National Medical Support Plan (“Obama Care”) has established that colonoscopies must be covered without any copayment requirement for its participants. Colonoscopy involves bowel preparation and IV sedation and typically lasts about 30 minutes. Recovery is rapid.
The best preventive measure physicians can recommend to their patients is to undergo screening for colon cancer. In addition, a diet high in fiber and low in fat seems protective, along with plenty of exercise. A healthy body weight is encouraged. Patients who smoke should be urged to quit.
Trends in colon cancer detection
We are making progress in colon cancer prevention and death rates. Forty-three percent of adults over age 50 have undergone flexible sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy according to a 2005 National Institute Health Survey. This is an increase from only 31% in 1997. Early detection helps with survival, as cancer caught at an early stage has a much more favorable survival rate.
The Endoscopy Center of Colorado Springs
The physicians at Associates in Gastroenterology, P.C., perform routine endoscopy, including colonoscopy and upper endoscopy, at the Endoscopy Center of Colorado Springs, a state-of-the-art, fully accredited ambulatory surgery center located adjacent to their office in the Audubon Medical Campus at 2940 N. Circle Drive. The physicians also perform biliary endoscopy (ERCP), endoscopic ultrasound and capsule endoscopy in a private-practice, patient-oriented setting. The practice also treats gastrointestinal and liver disease including inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, esophageal disease, viral hepatitis, irritable bowel syndrome and GERD.