Health Take-Away: Get checked for colon cancer

I've learned the sad way, through both professional and personal experience, that people who refuse to get colorectal screenings and colonoscopies out of squeamishness or sheer embarrassment run the deadly risk of not finding out they have colon cancer until it's too late.

Not long ago, the topic of colon health wasn't as openly discussed as it is today, and that silence contributed to many unnecessary deaths. Eighteen years ago, I was talking with my father-in-law, a 63-year-old retired city police officer, sitting around his kitchen table when he asked, "What kind of nursing do you do?" I told him I was an R.N. in our hospital's endoscopy unit. He asked what that was and I explained that endoscopy is a procedure using a flexible tube with a light and camera attached to examine the digestive tract for polyps and other issues, with one of the most common procedures being a colonoscopy. "Have you ever had one?" I asked. "Nope. Never heard of it."

It wasn't long after that he went to his doctor and asked about a colonoscopy. Sadly, when he had the procedure, it turned out he had stage three colon cancer, even though he had no outward symptoms. A year and half later, my new father-in-law passed away.

The sad irony didn't end there. After the death of their father, my husband and his five siblings were told they were at increased risk of colon cancer themselves.

The recommendation for people with no risk factors is to have a colonoscopy once every 10-year period from age 50 to 75, if no significant polyps are discovered.

For those with a family history, the recommendation is a first colonoscopy at age 40 or 10 years before the youngest colon cancer death in the immediate family, whichever is earlier, and then once every five years through age 75.

Most of my husband's family followed through. One sister resisted. One day, about five years ago, she called to say she was experiencing severe abdominal pain. A CT scan revealed her intestinal area was filled with what looked like cancer that began in the colon. Like her father, she died a year and half after diagnosis. It saddens me to this day because it could have been prevented. I share this personal story because it underscores a truth I experience every day in my work: regular colorectal screenings and colonoscopies save lives! Avoiding them can be fatal.

Colorectal cancers are the nation's second leading cause of cancer deaths. Approximately 140,000 people are diagnosed with colon cancer in the U.S. and over 50,000 people die from it annually. Simple steps could prevent many of those deaths. And they're getting even easier to do.

For first-timers who long heard that the cleansing preparation for a colonoscopy can be very uncomfortable, requiring them to consume a huge volume of bitter-tasting liquid over several hours: the volume of fluid required today is far lower than it was just a few years ago; it even tastes better. Colonoscopies are done under safe sedation. Most patients report no significant lingering effects of the procedure or sedation.

Annual colorectal blood screening tests (age 50 to 75) also are getting easier. The patient does a simple at-home stool test for hidden blood and mails it to the lab for results. The home test is better than not doing any form of screening, but is not a replacement for a colonoscopy, the absolute best way to detect polyps and cancer. No amount of visible rectal bleeding should be ignored; call your doctor.

When it comes to colorectal health, don't be reluctant or embarrassed. Your life depends on it.

Jacqueline Sciola, B.S.N., R.N., C.G.R.N., is director of Ambulatory Surgery and Endoscopy at Berkshire Medical Center.


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