Fourth Annual Gastrointestinal Associates’ Screening Colonoscopy Day is Lifesaving

The fourth annual Gastrointestinal Associates’ Screening Colonoscopy Day on Saturday gave 42 Knox-area people a life-saving opportunity – receiving a free colonoscopy.

GIA founded Screening Colonoscopy Day in 2009 for two reasons: to help protect uninsured people from this preventable and treatable disease, and to raise awareness about the importance of you and your loved ones getting screenings.

Having a colonoscopy greatly reduces your chances of dying from colon cancer, the second deadliest cancer. In fact, removal of pre-cancerous polyps actually prevents colon cancer; and if found early, colon cancer is curable in up to 90 percent of cases.

Each year, about half of the patients in Screening Colonoscopy Day have potentially cancerous polyps removed. However, this year that percentage was higher. GIA physicians removed polyps from 27, or almost two thirds of the 42 patients. Unfortunately, a malignant tumor was found in one patient during the screenings. The man, James Berrier, 62, will now be able to receive cancer treatment through medical organizations that have agreed to provide follow-up care. He knew he needed a colonoscopy, and even had symptoms, but without health insurance, he ignored them because he knew he couldn’t afford the test.

During an interview with WBIR-TV 10 anchor John Becker, Mr. Berrier expressed his gratitude to GIA and Dr. Tom Kim of The Free Medical Clinic of America who told him of Screening Colonoscopy Day and referred both he and his wife, Lois, to the program. Lois had two polyps removed during her screenings. He also cautioned those who have insurance against waiting, stressing that had health insurance when he was 50 and should have gotten the test then. There’s a good chance that 12 years ago what is now a malignant tumor was a polyp that could have been removed.

From the beginning of Screening Colonoscopy Day, gastroenterologists at GIA, The Endoscopy Center, GIA’s pathologist, Anesthesia Associates of Knoxville, supported by Premier Surgical Associates and Tennova Healthcare, have been able to help protect close to 200 people who would otherwise likely have forgone or delayed the screening due to cost. Performing the 40-plus screenings required a team of 80: physicians, staff and volunteers. Interfaith Health Clinic and The Free Medical Clinic of America refer patients to the program. Thanks as well to corporate supporters: Boston Scientific, the American Cancer Society and Braintree Laboratories.

My hope is that other health providers will join us in this effort to enable screenings to a larger group of people each year. Several GI groups have already agreed to partner with us, and we are planning to expand the effort across the community in 2013.

Undergoing a screening colonoscopy is relatively easy, and the benefits can be life saving. With mild sedation, patients sleep through the procedure, which takes only 15-30 minutes. During the screening, the physician searches for abnormal cell growths called polyps, removes any found, and sends them for pathology examination. Polyps are usually benign; however, some may contain a small area of cancer or some may develop into cancer over time.

In all honesty, the preparation to empty the colon the day before is the most unpleasant part, but nothing compared to undergoing cancer treatment, the risk of dying or possibly having to live with a colostomy (an artificial opening in the abdomen).

Jack and Sue Mulkey were extremely relieved and grateful to learn that two small polyps were removed during her colonoscopy, even though she was at least eight years late getting her first screening. The couple was especially worried because their 41-year-old daughter died of colon cancer in March, after being diagnosed at age 38.

“Cancer knows no age,” Jack Mulkey said. “When you have no insurance, this is a lifeline.”

Nine of 10 people who develop colorectal cancer are 50 or older. This is why the general guidelines recommend people begin having a colonoscopy at 50. However, those at higher risk should begin earlier — those with a family history of colorectal cancer, diabetics or those who have had inflammatory bowel disease. African Americans have the highest incidence of this type of cancer and the highest mortality rates. It’s very important to talk to your doctor about when and how often you should have this life-saving screening.

Other risk factors are smoking, heavy alcohol use, diets rich in red meats or processed meats, physical inactivity and obesity. Additionally, 5-10 percent of people diagnosed with colorectal cancer have inherited syndromes that make them genetically predisposed to the disease.

With an increased focus on awareness and prevention, we can save lives and knock colorectal cancer down from its No. 2 deadliest cancer ranking.