No more buts about colon screening

Individuals should be screened for colon cancer if they are older than 50 years, have inflammatory bowel disease or a family history of colon cancer. Photo: Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control.

Despite most individuals initial misgivings about getting a colon cancer screening, I get many questions about the process and risks of colorectal cancer. So in honor of March, which is colon cancer awareness month, I’ll use this column to address some of the most common inquires.

Colon cancer ranks third for cancer deaths for men and women. However, it is relatively easy to detect in its early stages and treatable. The current consensus is that individuals should have a screening if they are older than 50 years old, have inflammatory bowel disease or a family history of colon cancer.

Screening aims to identify a particular type of polyp, a collection of abnormal glandular tissue, at risk for becoming cancerous or in the very early cancer stage. A negative finding on your colonoscopy means that you don’t need another screening for 10 years off; A suspicious polyp-find requires a test in 3-5 years.

Many screening methods exist, which you can review here. Most Fermilab employees opt for colonoscopy performed via a flexible fiber optic device with a diameter a little larger than a pencil. The use of varying degrees of anesthesia determines recovery time. Patients must ingest a clear liquid diet and empty their colons the day prior to the test.

Conflicting evidence exists on whether diet affects colon cancer risk, but a diet low in animal fat and high in fruits and vegetables certainly yields other benefits beside potential reduced cancer risk. Several years ago vitamin A was studied as a means of preventing colon cancer in smokers. The study was stopped due to the paradoxical rise in cancers, which gave supplements a bad rap for a time. The problem was not vitamins but too much of one synthetic type, which can impede absorption of that vitamin naturally. Bottom line: Follow your doctor’s or the Federal Drug Administration’s recommendations. And, yes, your mother was right: eat those fruits and veggies — they’ll have the full spectrum version of vitamins.

Still, probably the best advice you can receive is to get a screening if you fall in the risk categories. Colorectal cancer typically allows for easy early detection with good outcomes. Participating in a screening is a good investment in your healthy future.

— Brian Svazas, M.D.