I think it’s safe to say that the majority of us have been touched by cancer at some time in our lives. It may have been a personal experience or a shared experience with a family member or friend. Regardless of how close it is, hearing about cancer both saddens and frightens us. Dealing with cancer is a reality for all physicians.
I am a gastroenterologist. Gastroenterology is the branch of medicine that focuses on the digestive system and its disorders. Colorectal cancer is the most common cancer that affects the digestive system. Colorectal cancer is the No. 2 cancer killer in the United States, yet it is one of the most preventable types of cancer. When detected early, colorectal cancer is often curable. Most colorectal cancers develop from polyps. Polyps are abnormal growths in the colon. They often do not cause symptoms until they turn cancerous. A screening test called a colonoscopy is the best way to detect colorectal cancer as well as find and remove polyps before they turn into cancer.
Gastroenterologists receive special training in colonoscopy and perform more colonoscopies by far than any other specialty. A colonoscopy is an exam that views the inside of the colon (large intestine) and rectum, using a tool called a colonoscope. Patients are typically sedated for the procedure, making it a very comfortable experience. Prior to the procedure, patients are required to take a bowel cleansing prep. This very important step ensures that your doctor has the best chance of viewing your entire large bowel. Patients are required to have a driver take them home after the procedure and take the rest of the day off.
Many times in the office I have been asked if there is an alternative to having a colonoscopy. The answer is yes. A colonoscopy is considered the “gold standard” for colorectal screening by the American College of Gastroenterology, but other screening methods are available. Annual fecal immunochemical testing can detect hidden blood in the stool. If the results are positive, your doctor will advise you to have a colonoscopy. CT colonography is a special X-ray test designed to look for colon polyps and cancers. It is performed every five years and is reliable for detecting larger polyps. Flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years with stool cards is also available, but a flexible sigmoidoscopy only visualizes one third of the colon. For my patients who do not want to proceed with a colonoscopy, I always say, “It’s OK if you choose not to have a colonoscopy, but get screening of some sort. Something is better than nothing.” Then I try to convince them to have a colonoscopy.
Talk to your doctor. If you are age 50 and above or if you have a family history of colon cancer, you should be screened for colorectal cancer. A simple screening test can save your life.
Dr. Jason Collins received his M.D. from The University of Illinois at Chicago, and he is certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine and the American Board of Gastroenterology. He practices Gastroenterology and Hepatology at Glenwood Medical Associates, and he is passionate about preventing colorectal cancer.
Many times in the office I have been asked if there is an alternative to having a colonoscopy. The answer is yes.