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Why Colon Cancer Screening is so Important

Samit Datta, MD, Gastroenterology provider at Skagit Regional Health, discusses colon cancer screenings, why colon cancer screening is so important, the types of screenings, who should undergo colon cancer screening and more. 

Samit Datta, MD, Gastroenterology

Why Colon Cancer Screening is so Important

Colon cancer is the third most common cancer in men and the second most common cancer in women. And, approximately 50,000 people die from colon cancer a year. The good news is that it is highly preventable with proactive screening.

Danger of Absent Symptoms

Colon cancer screening is especially important because symptoms typically don’t present until it has reached later stages. Early on, symptoms can be very non-specific or even absent. As cancer progresses, people may experience abdominal pain, constipation and rectal bleeding.

“Rectal bleeding is a common sign that does tend to occur more with later stage cancers because it wears on the wall of the colon itself. But until then, people may not notice they have it at all,” states Dr. Samit Datta, gastroenterologist at Skagit Regional Health.

Who Should Undergo Colon Cancer Screening?

According to Dr. Datta, everyone should undergo colon cancer screening at the appropriate age. If an individual has no predisposition to colon cancer, such as family history, it’s recommended they start screening at age 45. With an instance of first-degree family history (mom, dad, sibling), that age is lowered to 40.

“There are some genetic syndromes that increase the risk of colon cancer, too. Those are a bit more specific to individuals, and they have a different schedule altogether. But, those are the main categories for who needs to be screened,” explains Dr. Datta.

What Types of Screening Exist?

Over the years, a few different options have arisen with respect to colon cancer screening. For example, a stool test popularly known as Cologuard.

“The biggest problem we've been seeing after this test came out is that there were a lot of false negatives. What that means is, people have colon cancer but the test says they don't. That's why we generally don't recommend this as a screening test anymore because we could potentially be missing 8% to 10% of people who have colon cancer,” cautions Dr. Datta.

Instead, he urges individuals to undergo the “gold standard” of screening: colonoscopy. This is the best way to detect colon cancer. Not only that, but surgeons can actually remove any concerning polyps during the colonoscopy procedure.

“We can prevent the need for a colon surgery if we find these big polyps before they have a chance to transform,” notes Dr. Datta. “Which, I think if we can prevent a surgery, that's a massive win in my book.”

Many people are hesitant to schedule a colonoscopy because they have heard horror stories about the preparation required. Dr. Datta agrees it’s not fun, but the rewards outweigh this downside.

The procedure itself is painless. Patients are sedated and do not feel a thing. Some actually report feeling “rested” after waking up. Individuals are able to resume normal activities after about 24 hours.

Next Steps, Post-Screening

If everything looks clear, individuals don’t have to repeat the colonoscopy screening for another 10 years. But, if polyps are detected and removed, surgeons will recommend a screening timeline based on the specific circumstances—usually 3-5 years. However, if the polyps were quite large, it may be sooner than that.

Should an individual have advanced stage colon cancer, there are still treatment options. “We have a lot of good supportive treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation that can treat colon cancer, even if it is a later stage cancer,” assures Dr. Datta.

Talk with your healthcare provider to learn more about colon cancer screenings.