SEATTLE — Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer affecting both men and women. It is also the third leading cause of cancer related deaths. A new study from the CDC shows the rate of colon cancer screenings to catch the disease is on the rise, but isn’t yet to the 70% goal of patients getting screened as recommended.
50,000 people a year in America die of colon cancer and with early screening virtually all of those deaths are preventable. “I don't know that people realize how easy it is to screen and how potentially it can save your life,” says Dr. Shawn West, Medical Director, Provider Engagement at Premera Blue Cross, “Most cancers start as a polyp, and you catch them early and have them removed, it doesn’t turn into cancer.”
The United States Preventative Task Force issues evidence-based guidelines that most medical providers follow, and the recommendation is that people between the age of 50 and 75 get some type of colon cancer screening. “The good news,” says Dr. West, “ is that there’s several different types of testing that you can pursue.”
The gold standard of testing is the colonoscopy, recommended every 10 years, but for people who are uncomfortable with the idea of having that test done, there is an at-home alternative called a Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT).
The FIT is a stool test that can be done in the privacy of your own bathroom by collecting a small stool sample and sending it by mail to a lab. It doesn’t require a doctor’s procedure, special diet, or laxatives beforehand. The FIT test is an annual test, versus a colonoscopy which is every 10 years, and Dr. West says the test are pretty even in terms of effectiveness, “They’re all very good, and the studies show for every thousand people that you screen, you prevent 20 people from dying of colon cancer."
The FIT screens for microscopic blood in the stool that can’t be seen. If there is blood found in the stool, that would indicate the need for further testing, and moving on to a colonoscopy. The FIT test is for patients that fall under average risk. If you have colon cancer in your family history, it’s recommended you start with the colonoscopy.
FIT kits are also a good option for people living in rural areas. Premera has programs in rural Washington and Alaska where they send FIT kits to customers who appeared to be overdue for screening and in areas that make it difficult to get to preventive care.
The colonoscopy is the most complete testing. It is an outpatient procedure in which the patient is put under anesthetic. There is some preparation the night before, “But typically you have an I.V. and you go to sleep and you wake up and it’s over.”
You can reduce your risk of colon cancers with a few activities:
- The most important: Don't miss your preventive colon cancer screening, especially if the fear of getting a colonoscopy is a primary concern
- Stop smoking if you can, and cut back on your alcohol use
- Be physically active and exercise
- Lose weight if you are significantly overweight
- Increase your intake of dietary fiber by eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
Screening for colon cancer is covered by most insurance plans, check with your provider. Premera has more information on colon cancer online:
Q&A with gastroenterologist Dr. Douglas B. Haghighi of Internal Medicine Associates about the most important things to know about colon cancer risks
Guidance on screening for colon cancer from Dr. David Buchholz.
Know your options for colon cancer screenings