Reduce your colon cancer risk: have a colonoscopy

Have you been putting off having a colonoscopy because you’d rather not endure the dreaded “prep” to clear your colon for the exam? Two new studies may cause you to rethink your reluctance.

As recently reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, a major study conducted by Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York offers clear evidence that removing precancerous growths spotted during a colonoscopy cuts in half the risk of dying from colon cancer. The study followed 2,602 patients, all of whom had precancerous growths removed during colonoscopies, for an average of 15 years. Those patients had a 53 percent lower risk of dying from cancer than would be expected among a similar group in the general population. The director of screening at the American Cancer Society said that it’s the first direct evidence that removing polyps can reduce the risk of colon cancer death.

A second study in Europe found that colonoscopies were more effective in finding polyps than tests that look for blood in the stool. In the study, about 53,000 participants were given a colonoscopy or a stool blood test. Both tests found about 30 colon cancer cases per group. Colonoscopies, however, found twice as many advanced growths and 10 times the number of less serious growths.

These results are important, and I hope that they will cause more people to take seriously the need to have a screening colonoscopy.  Studies reveal that the majority of Americans who should be screened for colorectal and prostate cancer avoid taking the test. Even those in the health care industry!

Larry Cross, executive director of the Norwalk Community Health Center in Norwalk, CT, told his local newspaper he laments his decision to put off the screening. Recovering from three operations to remove cancerous tissue from his colon, he says he foolishly ignored his doctor’s advice and for years avoided getting a colonoscopy. Once he did get the screening, a cancerous polyp was removed and found to be rather advanced. The recovery has been long and painful; but the real pain he says is in knowing it could have been avoided by early detection.

“I think there are many people in our profession who feel they have some kind of immunity perhaps because they work in health care,” he said. “It’s a stupid fallacy.”

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States and the fourth worldwide. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 143,000 new cases of colon or rectum cancer are expected in the U.S. this year, and nearly 52,000 people will die from it. Now we have the evidence to show that having a colonoscopy greatly reduces the risk of dying from colon cancer.

Everyone over age 50 should have a screening colonoscopy. Those with a personal or family history of cancer should be screened even earlier. It is a relatively easy and painless way to prevent one of the deadliest forms of cancer. If it’s time – or past time – for your colonoscopy, I encourage you to schedule this potentially life-saving screening today.