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Colon cancer screening isn’t such a pain in the butt
By Terrence Lee, M.D., for The Register-Guard
I am a gastroenterologist — a doctor specializing in gastrointestinal health and disease. One of the main things I do is perform colonoscopies for colon cancer screening. Since I get a lot of questions from patients prior to starting their colonoscopies, and because it is Colon Cancer Awareness Month, I thought I’d share a few of the more common pieces of information that people want to know before their procedures.
The instrument we use for colonoscopies is actually only about half an inch wide, or the width of a skinny pinky finger.
People usually feel very little. At most they feel some tugs and pulls while the instrument slides past corners in the colon and, remember, even less due to the sedation we give during the procedure.
Most people typically can eat whatever they want afterwards — salad, steak, phở, whatever.
The hardest part is done at home by you (and your toilet) when you drink all the pre-procedure laxative.
It’s a fairly clean procedure, as the prep you do beforehand cleans out the colon.
Colonoscopies are actually very enjoyable work. Everyone’s colon is unique and therefore every colonoscopy is a little bit different.
Colonoscopies prevent colon cancer by taking out polyps, so taking polyps out is very important. Most times, people have polyps that have to be removed. Polyps are like little moles that grow on the inside of the colon. Just like moles that grow on our skin, some of these little polyps in the colon eventually can turn into colon cancer. Fortunately, during a colonoscopy, most polyps — if they haven’t already turned into cancer — can be removed entirely off the surface of the colon without having to cut out a part of the colon with surgical intervention.
It is very gratifying to know that during a 20-30 minute procedure with a 2-3 hour recovery time, our team can remove something that could potentially have turned into cancer.
I hope that for the approximately 35-40 percent of the eligible screening population who don’t get screened, this information has helped to dispel some myths and misconceptions about colonoscopies and colon cancer screening. It is the people who don’t get to see a medical provider to discuss colon cancer screening who this op-ed is intended for.
You see, the problem is that most people, except for the most flexible among us, cannot routinely check inside our colons to see if a colon polyp or cancer is growing. Many polyps that are almost cancer or already cancer may not even have symptoms until they are incurable or would otherwise require extensive surgery and chemotherapy. Colon cancer screening — whether colonoscopy or any of the other approved methods — can detect polyps that can turn into cancer before they make that step. Colon cancer screening prevents cancer and saves lives.
I urge each and every one of you to discuss with your primary care provider how and at what age to start colon cancer screening. If I haven’t been persuasive enough to convince you that colonoscopies aren’t that bad, know that screening does not necessarily have to be with a colonoscopy either, as the other options include semi-regular stool samples, or a special type of CT scan. As long as these other methods of screening are normal then no colonoscopy is typically needed. Any abnormalities, however, would necessitate a colonoscopy.
Now that you’ve been made aware, please take a moment out of your busy schedule to discuss undergoing screening for colon cancer. After all, treating colon cancer is a bigger pain in the butt than preventing it in the first place.
Terrence Lee, MD, is a gastroenterologist at Eugene Gastroenterology.
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