Above: Take steps to screen for colon cancer and live a healthier life. Photo by Pixabay.

Did you know only 64.3 percent of Georgians who are 50 years old orolder have been screened for colorectal cancer? That’s according to the 2016 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which surveyed 400,000 adults across the country.

Sadly, colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in Georgia and the U.S., according to the Georgia Department of Public Health, and it’s one disease where screening — through colonoscopy exams — can make a huge difference, the experts say.

Alan Fixelle
Dr. Alan Fixelle, Gastroenterology Consultants

Dr. Alan Fixelle with Gastroenterology Consultants in Sandy Springs has personally undergone four colonoscopy exams.“ My paternal grandmother died from colon cancer at the age of 54,” he said, “I practice what I preach. Colonoscopy exams are really quite simple and safe.”

Colon cancer mortality is profoundly impacted byperiodic screening exams, Fixelle tells his patients. “My feeling is that when patients make the effort to comply with screening examinations and complete the bowel prep, that the physician should take the time to inspect all of the ‘nooks and crannies’ within the colon,” he said.

In fact, when colorectal cancer is diagnosed at the localized stage, the five-year survival rate is 90 percent and many people live much longer than five years. For this reason, promoting colorectal cancer screening is a major priority for the American Cancer Society.

“Screening can reduce death rates by preventing the disease through the detection and removal of polyps and also by detecting invasive colorectal cancer at earlier, more treatable stages,” says Kelly Durden, health systems manager for Atlanta Cancer Society.

According to Durden, the lives of 468 Georgians per year could be saved — more than one per day — if the percentage being tested can increase from 64.3 to 80 percent. It’s a goal worth striving for.

Although March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, don’t wait until then to make your appointment. The sooner you’re tested, the better as colon cancer can be highly preventable if caught early.

Screening Tests

Screening for colorectal cancer is the process of looking for cancer in people who have no symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The “visual colonoscopy” is still the gold standard for many physicians, according to WebMD.

However, stool-based tests are generally well received by patients. While these tests are less invasive than the traditional colonoscopy, they do require more frequent checks.

In 2014, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration approved a “do-it-yourself” kit like Cologuard. Most user reports are positive, but since they’re relatively new, many people have questions about the test kits.

ACS Colon cancer prevention

It’s the first stool-based colorectal screening test that detects the presence of red blood cells and DNA mutations. And it can identify the presence of certain kinds of abnormal growths, which may be cancerous or indicate potential cancer growths.

“Cologuard, like other screening methods, can give incorrect results … a colonoscopy, however, can miss polyps, but the odds are very low,” says WebMD’s website.

The “do-it-yourself” kit is used for general screening adults of either sex, 50 years or older, who are at average risk for colorectal cancer. Cologuard states that the test is “not for everyone” and is “not a replacement for diagnostic colonoscopy or surveillance colonoscopy in high-risk individuals.”

According to a 2018 Cologuard website, more than a million patients have already used their product for screening. The results are sent to your healthcare provider for follow-up care.

Visual Examinations

These visual tests look at the structure of the colon and rectum for any areas that appear abnormal. This is done either with a scope (a tube-like instrument with a light and tiny video camera on the end) put into the rectum, or with special imaging (x-ray) tests. Patients are kept comfortable by an anesthesiologist.

Flexible sigmoidoscopy checks the lower third of the colon. The test is recommended every 5 to 10 years, depending on your family history. The colonoscopy is similar to flexible sigmoidoscopy, except the physician uses a longer, thin, flexible, lighted tube to check for polyps or cancer inside the rectum and the entire colon.

During the colonoscopy, the doctor may find and then remove most polyps and some cancers. Colonoscopies are used as a follow-up test if anything unusual is found during one of the earlier screenings.

You may have heard of CT colonographies (or a virtual colonoscopies). X-rays and computers are used to produce images of an entire colon — and then they are displayed on a computer screen for the doctor to evaluate.

New Screening Guidelines

In May of 2018, the ACS updated their colorectal screening guidelines:

  • All U.S. adults of average colorectal cancer risk should undergo regular screening beginning at age 45 years.
  • Adults in good health should continue screening until age 75 years, beyond which the decision to continue screening should be individualized based on patient preferences, health status, life expectancy and screening history.

ACS colon cancer screening

Life can be one of those things that happens while making other plans. When planning your future activities like golf or tennis, playing with grandchildren and even continuing to travel — take a moment to check with your healthcare provider first.

While you’re there, ask whether it’s time for your next colorectal screening. Make healthy aging a priority for 2019.

Judi Kanne is a public health communications consultant and contributing writer to Atlanta Senior Life.