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Learn about the facts during colon cancer screening month
By Shalini Kanneganti, M.D.
Celebrities have a great capacity to bring attention to a cause or event. In 2000, “Today” show co-anchor Katie Couric wanted to call attention to colon cancer since she had lost her husband to the disease. She had a colonoscopy on live television and there was an increase in people getting screened around the country.
More recently Dan Whitney, better known as Larry the Cable Guy, turned 50 and got a colonoscopy. He did a video about it and posted it on YouTube that went viral.
Colorectal cancer is the third most common form of cancer diagnosis in the U.S. affecting both men and women. It is one of the most treatable and preventable forms of cancer and still almost 55,000 Americans each year are dying from this cancer.
March is National Colon Cancer Awareness Month and because colon cancer is asymptomatic for most patients, being screened is the best way to detect colon cancer before it becomes advanced. People most at risk for colorectal cancer include:
• people 50 and older;
• people with a family history of colorectal cancer or benign (non-cancerous) colorectal polyps;
• people with personal histories of inflammatory bowel disease; and
• people with family histories of inherited colorectal cancer or inherited colorectal problems.
If you don’t have any of these risk factors, it is recommended that everyone get screened when they turn 50. The gold standard for screening is still a colonoscopy, and while the procedure may sound intimidating, it is really quite benign.
The doctor uses an endoscope, which is a flexible tube with a camera on the end, to visualize the colon and search for any polyps or tumors. Patients are put under twilight sedation to make them comfortable. During the procedure, the doctor will remove any polyps and check them for precancerous cells. If any tumors are found that have become cancerous, surgery is usually the main course of treatment. Overall, a colonoscopy usually takes only 20 to 30 minutes and patients are able to resume their daily activities the same day.
You should also know that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that was passed in 2010 waives the coinsurance and deductible for many colon cancer screening tests, including a colonoscopy. In 2013, clarification to the preventative screening benefits under the law means that patients with private insurance are now not liable for cost sharing when a pre-cancerous polyp is removed during a colonoscopy screening. Medicare patients are still required to pay coinsurance when a polyp is removed, but efforts are underway to change this as well.
Many people don’t want to get a colonoscopy because they think it will be painful or embarrassing. Don’t let your fear get in the way of taking care of yourself. Too many people never get screened and by the time they realize there’s a problem their cancer is highly advanced.
Shalini Kanneganti, M.D., is a fellowship-trained and board certified surgeon in the treatment of colon and rectal diseases with Franciscan Surgical Associates at St. Joseph in Tacoma.