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Straight Talk About the Importance of Being Screened for Colon Cancer

March 19, 2014

By Dr. Dan Zuckerman, Executive Medical Director of St. Luke's Mountain States Tumor Institute

What’s worse than sitting on the toilet all night with medically-induced diarrhea, only to wake up the next day and have 4 feet of flexible plastic shoved up your bum?  Dying of colorectal cancer, that’s what.

As a medical oncologist at St. Luke’s Mountain States Tumor Institute (MSTI), I unfortunately see too many adults coming in with advanced colorectal cancer. We treat you, and we can even save you some of the time, but it would certainly be easier if you never had to meet me in the first place. March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month and is time to remind you of the importance of colorectal cancer screening.

Colorectal cancer is one of the most preventable cancers. This is because the cancer starts off as a polyp first – which is basically a ball of slowly growing, slightly abnormal cells that has the potential to become cancer. This growth of a polyp takes years and it takes even several more years for that polyp to transform into an actual colorectal cancer. The goal is to catch these growths at the polyp stage and remove them before they turn into cancer. Otherwise, once the polyp has mutated into a full-blown cancer, these cells have the ability to invade and spread into lymph nodes, liver and/or lung.

The best way to screen for colorectal cancer is with a colonoscopy. This is a test in which a doctor trained in endoscopy inserts a flexible tube with a camera into the colon and examines the entire length of it for any abnormalities. If a polyp is found, then it can be removed at that time. This test has been proven to save lives. It is understandable that a colonoscopy can make people squeamish, but that is not enough reason to avoid putting it off. Many of you may remember that the journalist Katie Couric lost her husband to metastatic colorectal cancer. She is now an advocate for colorectal cancer screening – even to the point that she had her own colonoscopy televised on national TV. You can see a link to that video here.

There are other tests for colorectal cancer screening and one of the main alternatives is fecal occult blood testing (FOBT). In this case, a stool sample can be tested for microscopic flecks of blood, which can be a warning sign of colorectal cancer. St. Luke’s MSTI even offers an easy colon health home test kit that can detect blood in the stool, but should not replace a colonoscopy.  You can order one at www.stlukesonline.org/freekit. Please consult your doctor to see which test is best suited for you.

So, who should get screened in the first place? Everyone over the age of 50 should get screened. Anyone with a family history of colorectal cancer or polyps or a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis) should get screened earlier. Ask your doctor if you fall into one of these higher risk categories.

Idaho has one of the lowest colorectal cancer screening rates in the country. I know. I see the tragic downstream results of this when patients show up in my clinic at MSTI. Let’s help to reverse this trend and save lives – your life, your loved one’s life. You don’t want to meet me and I don’t want to have to meet you. Please, get screened.

Click here for more information or to set up a screening.