How old are you? If you’re age 50 to 75, have you had your colon cancer screening? This testing can save your life, and it makes colon cancer one of the most preventable cancers around.
Need proof? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that from 2003 to 2007, cases of colorectal cancer dropped from just over 52 of every 100,000 people to just over 45 of every 100,000 people. That means 66,000 fewer cancers in four years. Even more important, that translated into 32,000 fewer deaths.
Rates vary from state to state. For example, people in Utah seem to have relatively low rates of colorectal cancer and related deaths, while in North Dakota, almost 57 of every 100,000 people are diagnosed with colorectal cancer. States that have the highest rates of screening saw the deepest drop in death rates, and the CDC says that screening is responsible for about half the drop in death rates.
I happen to be one of the deaths that didn’t happen. In 2007, I went to my gastroenterologist with symptoms that included bleeding. Erring on the side of caution—I was not 50 at the time but 39—my GI doctor ordered a colonoscopy. To what I think was his great surprise, he found a very large, flat, precancerous polyp. Even during the fuzzy recovery post-op, I remember his telling my husband that the symptoms that brought me to him saved my life. Without that colonoscopy, my doctor said, I’d have been dead in 5 years. That five years is now, and I’m still here and polyp free.
In spite of that and about 31,999 other success stories, colorectal cancer remains the second deadliest cancer in the United States, coming up behind lung cancer. Colorectal cancer still kills about 53,000 people each year.
Anyone who turns 50 should have a screening, but still only about 65% of people hitting that critical age have the screening. That leaves about 22 million people ignoring this important preventive care. Strangely enough, a major factor in whether or not someone gets appropriate screening is their doctor. According to the CDC, a doctor’s recommendation for screening can spur a patient to do so, while a lack of recommendation is a main reason patients don’t do it.
Screening can range from annual testing for fecal blood—called fecal occult (hidden) blood testing—to sigmoidoscopy every five years, which looks at the lower part of the colon and the rectum, to colonoscopy, the gold standard screening that covers the entire colon, top to bottom. Colonoscopy screening has a bad reputation. Yes, there’s a prep, and nope, it’s not a ton of fun. I’ve done it five times now. Guess what? It’s one day that could give you many, many days of life. The better your prep, the better the ability of your GI doc to see what’s in that colon of yours.
What’s your doctor looking for? Polyps. Many polyps are on little stalks and can be clipped out right then and there. Some polyps are like mine—flat and carpet like—and require deeper anesthesia and a longer time for removal. Either way, getting those things out before they go rogue and eat into and through your intestinal wall is critical to preventing death from colon cancer.
Who needs to be screened? Anyone who’s age 50 to 75 needs screening at regular intervals, often a colonscopy every 10 years as long as nothing turns up. But people like me require screenings more frequently—within one year of finding the precancerous polyps or worse, then at three years, then every five years as long as I get the all clear. And, if you have a family history of colon polyps, you may need testing even before age 50. For example, my siblings should start their screenings earlier than age 50 thanks to my own experience. Luckily, and as the CDC report on colorectal cancer diagnosis and death rates emphasizes, thanks to screening, I’m still around to tell them that.
Dr. Emily Willingham came to EarthSky from The Biology Files. Her background includes a PhD in biological sciences, a bachelor's degree in English, and a published book: The Complete Idiot's Guide to College Biology. She is a scientist, writer, editor, teacher, autism & ADHD parent, and "all around opinionator." Says Emily: "Got an English BA & biology PhD, & I'm not afraid to use them, often together."