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The Importance of Colon Screenings

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Updated October 02, 2005

There are several reasons people don't get the colon screenings they should. People say they are inconvenient, the preparation prior to the test can be unpleasant, and many simply don't understand the importance of regular colon screenings. The fact remains, regular colon screening for both men and women is the best way to monitor colon health and to catch any problems such as colon cancer early.

Why is colon screening so important?
Simply stated, colon screenings have been proven to reduce colon cancer deaths up to 90%. The reason this is so includes:

  • Colon polyps, the precursor to colon cancer most often exhibits few if any symptoms. Early diagnosis and treatment has been proven to reduce death rates dramatically.

  • If discovered early, colon cancer can often be cured with surgery alone. As the cancer spreads to include larger areas of the colon and surrounding structures, the treatment is much more involved, often requiring radiation or chemotherapy, with no guarantee of cure or effectiveness.

  • The rate of colon cancer is decreased upwards of 50% in those people who undergo regular colon screenings.

What does colon screening include?
There are three primary diagnostic tests included in a colon screening. They include:

  • Fecal Occult Blood Screening: This simple test can be done in the office or at home by the patient. A small stool sample is placed on a special card and a developing solution is used to identify any blood in the specimen; blood that can't be seen with the naked eye. Blood in the stool can be a sign of bleeding polyps or colon tissue that could indicate cancer or other disease. If blood is detected, other more invasive testing is necessary.

  • Flexible Sigmoidoscopy: This procedure can be done in the doctor's office without any sedation or pain medicine. A lighted, plastic tube is inserted into the rectum allowing the doctor to visually observe the lower portion of the intestine (the colon) as well as the rectum. The physician may takes small bits of tissue or polyps for examination under a microscope, looking for the early signs of colon cancer.

  • Colonoscopy: This procedure requires sedation and bowel preparation prior to the procedure. On the night before the scheduled procedure, one of many very potent laxatives are given to the patient in order to cleanse the entire colon, making visualization during the procedure much easier. During the procedure, the patient is sedated and a long flexible tube with a small fiberoptic camera is inserted into the rectum and advanced through the entire colon (the acsending, desending, and transverse), allowing the doctor to directly observe the colon as well as take small bits of tissue (biopsy) for examination under a microscope. After the procedure, there is a period of recovery from the sedation before the patient is permitted to go home.

How often should a colon screening be done?
Depending on the risk factors present, colon screening should be on a regular basis.

  • High risk patients such as those with a family history of colon cancer, diseases that increase the risk of colon cancer such as ulcerative colitis, or with compromised immune systems such as HIV should have a yearly fecal occult blood screening and sigmoidoscope and a colonoscopy every 5 to 10 years. At age 50 or 10 years after a diagnosis of high risk diseases such as ulcerative colitis or colon cancer in another family member, a colonoscopy should be done every 1 to 2 years.

  • If there are any signs or symptoms such as rectal bleeding, a screening should be done immediately and then every 6 months to a year until the problem is resolved.

  • In healthy people without risks, disease, or symptoms, a yearly fecal occult blood test, a sigmoidoscope every 5 years, and a colonoscopy every 10 years starting at age 50 is recommended.

If you haven't had a colon screening or feeli you are due to have another, talk to your doctor and get yours scheduled today. It may save your life.

Sources:
1. "Screening saves lives"; Herald-Dispatch.com; December 29, 2003.
2. Myers, Donna; "Colon Cancer Screening Recommendations"; Colon Cancer at About.com, 2005.

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