Colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., and the second most common cancer among women and third among men. Despite these statistics, one thing that can help stop colon cancer from developing is a colonoscopy.
“Ninety percent of colon cancer is prevented by removing colon polyps with a colonoscopy,” said Dr. Sabo Tanimu, a Marshfield Clinic Health System gastroenterologist. “Because colon cancer often develops from a polyp, then it is important for people to understand the significance of colonoscopies.”
A colonoscopy is a direct examination of the colon to identify and remove colon polyps. Colon polyps are not actually cancer, but rather a sign that colon cancer may be coming. By removing colon polyps early, colon cancer cannot develop.
Age for a colonoscopy
While everyone should have their first colonoscopy at age 45, some should get it sooner.
If you have a family history of colon cancer in an immediate family member, you could get a colonoscopy as early as age 40 or 10 years younger than the age colon cancer was first found in that family member.
Having a condition such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis could also increase your risk for developing colon cancer. Dr. Tanimu said African Americans also have an increased risk of colon cancer, so should get a colonoscopy around age 40.
If you are concerned about your colon cancer risk, ask your doctor about the right age for you to get a colonoscopy.
After a colonoscopy
Doctors examine colon polyps to determine the type of polyps present.
Three things determine when and if you need another colonoscopy in the future:
- The number of polyps removed
- Their size
- What kind of polyp is present
Most people come back for another colonoscopy after three, five or 10 years depending on the severity.
In some instances, when the doctor removes a large, flat polyp, you may need to repeat your colonoscopy in three to six months.
If you did not prep the colon correctly, you may need to repeat a colonoscopy after a year because it will not be as effective. Before the colonoscopy, you take a medication that helps the doctor see the colon lining better.
Other screening options
While a colonoscopy is the recommended screening option for detecting polyps, there are other options to keep an eye on your colon health.
At-home screening options are people who are at an average risk of colon cancer. There are several options that allow you to send a stool sample into the company and they will analyze it for markers of cancer. If you receive a positive result from this test, you should get a colonoscopy to confirm that cancer or polyps are present. If you choose this method, this test should be done every three years.
A CT colonography is a test that uses CT scans to check the colon and rectum for signs of polyps or colon cancer. This is also called a virtual colonoscopy. If you choose this method, this test should be done every five years.
A fecal immunochemical test (FIT) is another screening option that can be done at home. It can detect blood in your stool, which can be a sign of polyps and colon cancer. If you receive a positive result from this test, you should get a colonoscopy to confirm that cancer or polyps are present. If you choose this method, you should perform this test every year.
All these options, including colonoscopies, are available to people who are at an average risk of getting colon cancer. Although colon cancer is common, it is also preventable. “Whichever way you choose, the bottom line is to get screened,” said Dr. Tanimu.
For more information about colonoscopies, talk with your provider.