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According to the American Cancer Society, there will be 142,820 new cases of colorectal cancer diagnosed in the United States this year, with more than 50,000 people expected to die of the disease. March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness month, and experts say it's a good time to get the word out about this deadly disease.
Charles Fuchs, MD, MPH, director of the Center for Gastrointestinal Oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, said colorectal cancer can be detected early thanks to one simple screening test, a colonoscopy.
"Colonoscopy is an extraordinary screening tool. It's very safe and painless. Patients are given a mild sedative and the actual test takes about 10 minutes," said Fuchs. "Also, the great thing about colonoscopy compared to other screening techniques is that if you find a polyp, which is a pre-cancerous growth, not cancer, but pre-cancerous, they remove it. So if your doctor finds a polyp, the doctor takes care of it. It's done. It's gone."
According to the National Cancer Institute, the age when a person should have their first colonoscopy varies according to their level of risk for developing colon cancer. An individual with an average risk should begin colonoscopy screening at age 50, but someone who has a family history of the disease, namely a parent or sibling who has had colon cancer, likely should be screened earlier than age 50.
"If you have a family history of colon cancer, typically, the screening recommendation is between ages 35 and 40. If a family member was diagnosed at an even younger age, then you should speak with your physician about whether you should be screened even before age 35 to 40," said Fuchs.
Experts recommend that a person with an average risk should have a follow-up colonoscopy every ten years. Studies show the protection of having a normal colonoscopy does last a decade. However, if a colonoscopy finds polyps, it may be necessary to have more frequent colonoscopy exams.
For many people, a big reason they don't get a colonoscopy is because of the preparation for the procedure. Fuchs said the preparation drink or "prep" people need to take the night before a colonoscopy to help clear the bowels is not tasty, but it's palatable. And he added that the dislike of drinking the prep is not a good excuse to skip this potentially life-saving procedure.
"Nobody says to me that they were sorry they had the test," said Fuchs. "I'm a medical oncologist. I treat people who have been diagnosed with colon cancer, so I certainly hear the alternative. People who come to see me with the diagnosis of colon cancer say, 'I wish I had the test.' You don't want to be one of those people."
At Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center, colon cancer is treated through the Center for Gastrointestinal Oncology.