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There are numerous ways to screen the colon for possible cancer. Unfortunately, the most reliable is also the most notorious.

The colonoscopy.

However, the procedure can be a life-saving experience.

“Colon cancer screening is increasingly important. When a colon cancer is detected, there is upwards of a 90 percent chance for survival in Stage 1 cases,” said Dr. Julie Woods, of Geisinger. “If we can find polyps that may be concerning and remove them, it greatly improves the odds.”

If screenings are skipped, survival rate over a five year period after diagnosis drops significantly.

“By the time you get to Stage 3, which is where the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes, the five-year survival rate drops to 40 percent,” Woods said. “In Stage 4 cancer, where the cancer spreads beyond the colon and rectum area and to distant parts of the body, the five-year survival is around 15-17 percent.”

Dr. Joseph Gallagher, of Evangelical Community Hospital, agreed.

“One of the biggest fears of getting a colonoscopy is that something may be found,” he said. “But if you have polyps, you want them found. The sooner you do, the better the chance they won’t become something serious.”

 

The procedure

“People definitely have a lot of anxiety about getting a colonoscopy, although the hardest part is usually the prep beforehand,” said Gallagher. “It is also one of the most important parts because we need to clean everything out to get a good idea of what is going on in the colon.”

However, even the prep part has gotten better over time, added Woods.

“It is a lot more tolerable. In many cases, Gatorade can be used instead of the chalky laxative we used in the past,” she said. “The key is to stay near a bathroom and to stay hydrated.”

The next step is to receive the colonoscopy itself — a same-day procedure, according to Woods, that usually only takes 20-30 minutes if there are no abnormalities.

“We bring you into the center, put an IV in and hook up a monitor. An anesthetist then sedates you, and most people barely remember the procedure,” Gallagher said. “Once sedated, we do a rectal examination, scanning with a scope around the entire colon. If we find any polyps, we take them out.”

Colonoscopies are not painful in most cases.

“For us, 99.9 percent of people say they went to sleep, woke up and don’t remember anything. For some, they say it is the best nap they’ve ever taken,” Gallagher said. “In fact, I had one guy upset recently because he was about to land a 24-inch brown trout when we woke him up at the end of the procedure.”

For most people — those without an inherit risk of colon cancer, such as a family history — colonoscopies are recommended by the American Cancer Society starting at age 45. That age has dropped from the previous recommendation of starting them at age 50. However, many insurance companies won’t pay for procedures before 50.

Once started, it is recommended, for those with low risk, for return colonoscopies every 10 years moving forward.

“It usually takes 7-10 years typically for a polyp to develop into cancer,” Gallagher said. “We like to do whatever we can to prevent the disease.”

According to Woods, there are things people can tweak in order to help be proactive.

“There are risks that can be changed, and those that can’t,” she said. “People can’t change their genetics and family history, but they can change diet, exercise and overall lifestyle. We recommend limiting high fat red meat and avoiding smoking, which can cause multiple types of cancer, not just colorectal.”