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Preemptive strike - Colonoscopies starting at 45 target cancer before it takes hold

Any doctor will tell you the sooner you treat a disease, the more likely you are to have a positive outcome. When it comes to colon cancer, there’s no better way to catch it early and treat it before it becomes a problem, than with a colonoscopy.

“Essentially, colon cancer is preventable,” said Bryan Burns, MD, medical director, Endoscopy Center, Northeast Medical Group. “Every year people are diagnosed with colon cancer that could have been prevented if they had gone for a screening procedure a few years earlier and any polyps that were discovered were removed before they become cancerous.”

According to experts, the rates of colon cancer among older adults have dropped significantly over the past two decades thanks to screening protocols like colonoscopy. However, those same experts are concerned that younger patients are not getting the screenings they need.

Given the increasing colorectal cancer rates among younger people, the American Cancer Society now recommends people at average risk of colorectal cancer begin regular screening at age 45. Some patients with a family history of colon cancer or inflammatory bowel disease may need to get screened earlier.

“I’m sure there are many 45-year-olds who think they’re too young to be thinking about colon cancer,” Dr. Burns said. “That is exactly when you should be coming in to be checked. We want to take care of it before it becomes a serious issue; especially because a colonoscopy is a simple, painless procedure.”

During a colonoscopy, a doctor uses a colonoscope, a long, flexible tube with a tiny video camera at the tip, to check for abnormal tissue in the large intestine. Sometimes, a small growth, called a polyp, can form on the inner wall of the colon or rectum. Although many polyps are benign (not cancerous), some become cancerous. Polyps can be removed during the colonoscopy to prevent possible progression of cancer.

During a colonoscopy, the patient is sedated and feels no pain. Most patients say preparing for the procedure is the hardest part, which includes a clear liquid diet and laxatives the day before. Others may feel uneasy about having a procedure of any kind, but physicians urge people not to let nerves deter them from getting the screening they need.

“The preparation has gotten a lot easier in recent years. Many of my patients have said afterwards that it was easier than they thought,” Dr. Burns said. “The procedure itself is very beneficial because we’re able to identify any polyps and remove them at the same time.”

No matter your age, it’s important to know common colorectal cancer symptoms. Most people don’t have any symptoms in the cancer’s early stages. The most common symptom is a change in bowel habits. You may notice blood in the stool, weight loss and abdominal pain or develop anemia. If you experience any of these signs, consult a physician.

Dr. Burns advises everyone to speak with their doctor about screening for colon cancer. "Colorectal cancer screening saves lives, so please have your cancer screening,” he said.

Studies show that habits related to diet, weight and exercise are strongly linked to colorectal cancer risk. To minimize the risk of colorectal cancers:

  • Eat lots of vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Also, eat less red meat (beef, pork or lamb) and processed meats (hot dogs and luncheon meats), which can increase the risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Stay physically active. People who have a sedentary lifestyle may have a greater chance of developing colorectal cancer.
  • Watch your weight. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of getting and dying from colon or rectal cancer. Control your weight by eating healthier and exercising.
  • Don’t smoke. Longtime smokers are more likely than nonsmokers to develop colorectal cancer. If you are ready to stop smoking, the Smilow Cancer Hospital Tobacco Treatment Program tailors treatment to your situation and tobacco use history. To learn more or to schedule a consultation, call 203-688-1378.
  • Avoid alcohol. Studies show alcohol use is linked to a higher risk of colorectal cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.

Learn more about colon cancer screenings and prevention.

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