A Lifesaving Screening for Colorectal Cancer
Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. Some 50,000 Americans die of colorectal cancer every year. But did you know there’s a way to prevent it? In fact, it’s highly effective, and would result in a dramatic drop in colorectal cancer deaths.
It’s a procedure known as colonoscopy—an examination of the colon performed with a colonoscope, a long, flexible tube with a camera and a powerful light at the tip. The tube is inserted into the colon, or large intestine, and that highly detailed inside view is then displayed in real time on a large screen. The patient is sedated during the procedure.
Using the colonoscope, doctors can look for abnormalities such as polyps—small, usually benign growths—or inflammation, says Richard Greenberg, MD, Division Chair of Colorectal Surgery for Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia.
If these abnormalities are discovered, says Dr. Greenberg, “they can be addressed right at that time either by biopsy or removal of the polyp.” The entire procedure lasts less than 20 minutes and is extremely safe.
Who should get a colonoscopy? For most of us with no signs or symptoms of colorectal cancer, the first is a screening colonoscopy. That first one generally should be performed at age 50, although the procedure is recommended for African-Americans five years earlier. That’s because colon cancers occur earlier in African-Americans, and when they do they are often more advanced, says Dr. Greenberg.
“Everyone should … note that if colonoscopy finds an early-stage colon cancer, the chance of being cancer-free after five years is around 95 percent.”—Richard Greenberg, MD
Earlier colonoscopy also might be recommended for those who have a family history or in cases where there are signs and symptoms such as abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, persistent change in bowel habits, especially worsening constipation and narrowing of the stool, Dr. Greenberg adds.
Your primary doctor might also recommend a colonoscopy for rectal bleeding. Often, the causes are benign, but you can’t make assumptions. “It is important to know that rectal bleeding should never be assumed to be from hemorrhoids unless a medical examination has taken place,” says Dr. Greenberg. “It is very important to know as well that young individuals can get colon polyps and colon cancer, so a young age is not a reason to not pursue answers to the question, ‘why am I bleeding.’”
Colonoscopy can also uncover other conditions, such as diverticulosis—a weakening of the colon wall—certain infections, and hemorrhoids, but its clear and unquestioned value lies in its ability to prevent colorectal cancer.
“Most colon and rectal cancers do not start as cancer,” says Dr. Greenberg. “They start as polyps. If screening takes place as recommended, most abnormalities in the colon will be polyps rather than cancer. And most of the time these polyps can be removed right at the time of colonoscopy.”
“Everyone should also note that if colonoscopy finds an early-stage colon cancer, the chance of being cancer-free after five years is around 95 percent,” adds Dr. Greenberg. “Clearly colonoscopy is very important and powerful in cancer prevention and detection.”
Learn more in this video.