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TMH Living Well Column: Regular screenings prevent colon cancer

The Memorial Hospital

It’s reassuring to know that as long as you get recommended colon cancer screening tests you will most likely avoid colon cancer. That’s because colon cancer starts out as a benign polyp in your colon. Once removed, your cancer risk at that site is gone.

Screening tests don’t usually treat problems they only detect problems. An exception is a colonoscopy — colonoscopies allow physicians to both detect suspicious polyps and remove them all in the same visit.

“This is certainly an advantage of a colonoscopy over other colon cancer screening tests. When I find adenomatous polyps during a colonoscopy I can generally remove them right then and there,” said Dr. Jeff Womble, general surgeon with The Memorial Hospital, who has been performing colonoscopies for over 10 years and calls them the gold standard in colon cancer screening tests.

Colonoscopies are not necessarily pleasant, but they save lives and only need to be done every 10 years for adults 50 years and over of average risk.

“Patients often find the bowel prep the night before to be the hardest part. Fortunately, that’s been improved some over the past, when patients had to drink two gallons of fluid that tasted unpleasant. Now, the amount is less and the flavor is more palatable,” Womble added.

“On the day of the procedure, we start an IV with fluids and sleeping medicine which helps patients basically sleep through the procedure,” Womble said.

For a colonoscopy, patients are put under “twilight” anesthesia. Typically, the procedure takes 30 minutes or less but can take an hour or longer if polyps are found and need to be removed.

“There are three things we know about colon cancer. The first is that the risk goes up after age 50. The second is that colon cancer starts off as a polyp. The third is that you can have colon polyps and even colon cancer and not know it until it is very advanced. That’s why we recommend colon cancer screenings,” Womble said.

Besides a colonoscopy, there are other screening options including a sigmoidoscopy that looks at just the lower part of the colon. There are also stool tests: the Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) or the fecal immunochemical test (FIT) check for blood and tumor markers in the stool. The FOBT is a good test, but it can create false positives if blood is present for other reasons, such as hemorrhoids, certain medicines or even eating beef the night before. Additionally, these tests are not very good at detecting pre-cancerous polyps.

“A new virtual colonoscopy called a CT colonography is starting to be used. It’s basically a CT scan that looks for polyps. It’s too new to be covered by most insurance, but I imagine in 5 to 10 years we could be recommending it more often. There’s no one in northwest Colorado currently doing this test,” Womble added.

Family history is a big player in increasing risk for colon cancer, as are certain conditions including ulcerative colitis. Colon cancer strikes more men than women and accounts for about 9 percent of all cancer deaths.

“There are ways to reduce your risk. The biggest is eating a high-fiber diet. Studies show that taking ibuprofen or aspirin may also decrease risk. Of course, exercising and decreasing obesity helps lower your risk for colon and other cancers,” Womble said.

“In this day and age there is no reason for people to get colon cancer. If everyone gets screened as we recommend we could prevent well over 90 percent of colon cancer cases,” Womble concluded.

Federal and state laws, including the Affordable Care Act, mandate that colonoscopies (as screening tests) be covered by insurance. Both Medicaid and Medicare cover the procedure.

Dr. Womble and his surgical partner, Dr. Alexis Driggs, perform colonoscopies at The Memorial Hospital. For more information about colon cancer screening and colonoscopies, call The Memorial Hospital Medical Clinic and schedule an appointment with either Dr. Womble or Dr. Driggs.

This weekly article with tips on living well is sponsored by The Memorial Hospital at Craig — improving the quality of life for the communities we serve through patient-centered healthcare and service excellence.This weekly article with tips on living well is sponsored by The Memorial Hospital at Craig — improving the quality of life for the communities we serve through patient-centered healthcare and service excellence.This weekly article with tips on living well is sponsored by The Memorial Hospital at Craig — improving the quality of life for the communities we serve through patient-centered healthcare and service excellence.


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