Each March, Colon Cancer Awareness Month, doctors and community organizations remind us all to be proactive about our health. Screening colonoscopies are recommended for men and women beginning at age 50, and should be performed once every 10 years for those at normal risk. Individuals who have a family history of colon cancer or polyps should be screened earlier and more frequently. The time for the initial discussion with your doctor should be 40 or 10 years earlier than the family member that developed colon cancer, whichever comes first.
Colon polyps and early colon cancer have no symptoms, making screening of particular importance.
Many people have an image or expectation about a colonoscopy based on older technologies. Today, we've found many ways to make the screening more convenient, comfortable and accessible.
The preparation for a colonoscopy screening is easier than ever before. You don't have to drink a gallon jug of less-than-tasty liquid and spend a day in the bathroom. Using newer methods, preparation for a colonoscopy can begin as late as the evening before your scheduled procedure.
Physicians have also taken steps to reduce the time involved for the patient by significantly reducing wait times and taking patients directly to the endoscopy suite, where the procedure is performed, instead of waits in admissions and more. The day of your procedure, you should be in and out in less than 3 hours.
The actual procedure has improved as well. We use light sedation to prevent any discomfort, and most patients don't remember the procedure at all.
You don't need a referral from your primary care physician. You can make an appointment for a screening at a time right for you by contacting a gastroenterologist or hospital of your choice.
The Centers for Disease Control and other studies estimate that 60-90 percent of colon cancer deaths could be prevented if men and women at age 50 or earlier were screened routinely.
Know your risks and talk to your doctor about the best screening plan for you. The factors that affect your risks of colon cancer include:
■ Age — The chances of developing colorectal cancer increase markedly after age 50.
■ Personal health history — If you suffer from inflammatory bowel disease, including ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease, your risk of developing colorectal cancer may increase and you should be screened more frequently.
■ Family history— About 20 percent of people who develop colorectal cancer have other family members who have been affected by the disease. The other 80 percent who developed colorectal cancer had no family history.
■ Racial and ethnic background — Blacks have the highest colorectal cancer incidence rates of all racial groups in the United States, but everyone is still at risk. Screening for blacks should begin at age 45.
Regular screenings could prevent a deadly disease.