It’s a medical procedure some celebrities feel so strongly about, they publicly support it. Charles Barkley did it on national television. So did Dr. Oz. It’s screening for colon cancer, and it’s saving lives.
“Despite its reputation as an uncomfortable and embarrassing test, colonoscopy is the one screening tool that can prevent colon cancer because it can find and remove polyps in one procedure,” says John Riopelle, DO, gastroenterologist with Kaiser Permanente Colorado.
Screening is best prevention
Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, partly because it can go undiagnosed. In many cases, polyps can develop in the large intestine or rectum and become malignant without symptoms. If not discovered early, colon cancer can be fatal.
Men and women age 50 and older, those with family history of the disease, and people with a history of colon polyps or inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, are at higher risk for colon cancer. If you fall into one of these categories, talk to your physician about the screening guidelines, including which test is best for you.
The most common colon cancer screening tests include:
Fecal immunochemical test (FIT): This non-invasive test can be used as a first step in colon cancer screening. The test detects blood in the stool — an indication that colon polyps or cancer could be present. Today, Kaiser Permanente mass mails about 400,000 FIT kits each year to its age-eligible members and analyzes the returned kits by machine. If the results are positive, staff will contact the patient to schedule a colonoscopy.
Sigmoidoscopy: This procedure uses either a flexible or rigid viewing scope to explore the lower portion of the intestine and biopsy for any suspicious tissue. “At Kaiser Permanente, sigmoidoscopy is generally reserved for special circumstances,” Dr. Riopelle says.
Colonoscopy: Colonoscopy uses a small flexible scope to view the lining of the entire large intestine while patients are under sedation. During the procedure, a gastroenterologist can locate and remove polyps before they become malignant. “Every time we find and remove a polyp, we reduce — if not eliminate — the risk of colon cancer,” says Dr. Riopelle, who performs about more than 150 colonoscopies per month.
Strength in numbers
To boost colon cancer screening rates, Kaiser Permanente Colorado uses FIT mailings and telephone reminders. Today, 74 percent of age-eligible patients in Colorado have received a colonoscopy. The national average is less than 50 percent.
“Colon cancer screenings may extend people’s lives,” Dr. Riopelle states. “In most cases, they are the only way to detect a problem patients didn’t even know they had.”