GASTRO
July 19, 2011

CDC Says, Get Screened

Colon cancer is practically entirely preventable. Tens of thousands of lives could be saved if people were screened.

Suppose that you could get up early, go to your doctor’s, take a good nap for about an hour, and when you woke up, your doctor could all but assure you that the number two cancer killer in the U.S. would not be killing you in the next ten years. Would you be thrilled? Most definitely.

Now suppose that you are a public health official, and you realize that there is a procedure that could nearly wipe out the number two cancer killer in the country, but a third of the people eligible for the procedure were not doing it, and that some of them were dying unnecessarily from cancer. Would you wish that you could change that? Of course.

These are precisely the situations with colon cancer screening. It's a lifesaver and yet most of the people who should be screened are not doing it, according to a U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Vital Signs report released July 1.

The CDC estimates that with the increase in screening that has occurred, there have been 66,000 fewer cancers and 32,000 fewer deaths. But there are still many colon cancers just starting to develop now that can be prevented.

Screening for colon cancer can all but prevent colon cancer. This is so because the nature of colon cancer makes it ideal for screening: it is a relatively slowly progressing cancer that does not metastasize or spread immediately; and colon cancer usually has a pre-cancerous stage in which the abnormalities (polyps) can be identified and removed before they become cancer. The procedures for screening, while a nuisance and sometimes mildly uncomfortable, are very safe.

Screening should begin at age 50. People who are at higher risk for colon cancer, such as those with a strong family history, should consult with their doctor as to when they should begin screening. The three accepted methods of screening are:

  • A yearly test of blood in the stool, called a fecal occult blood test or FOBT;
  • A flexible sigmoidoscopy in which a scope is inserted into the lower bowel every five years along with a FOBT every three years;
  • A colonoscopy done once every ten years in which the patient is sedated or put to sleep and which looks at the total large bowel.

Although cancer screening rates have increased from 52% to 65% in the past eight years, more than a third of people between 50 and 75 are not getting their screening.

The CDC estimates that with the increase in screening that has occurred, there have been 66,000 fewer cancers and 32,000 fewer deaths. But there are still many colon cancers just starting to develop now that can be prevented. Let’s take a good nap (or talk to your doctor about the best method for you to get screened) and wake up with a ten-year promise of colon health.

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