The second deadliest cancer in the United States can be prevented with regular screening.

by Jason Dundulis

As the height of summer approaches, vacations and celebrations are top of mind. Easily ignored are doctor visits crucial to maintaining health and wellness, especially when it comes to screenings. Colon cancer kills nearly 50,000 Americans each year, which makes it one of the deadliest cancers in the United States, second only to lung cancer. “Worldwide, colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer deaths and can be prevented,” says Dr. Sara Echelmeyer of JCMG Gastroenterology. Colon cancer is common, it’s deadly, and it’s largely preventable. Approximately one in 20 Americans will develop colon cancer in their lifetime without proper screening, and a family history of colon cancer can significantly increase that risk.

On a positive note, there has recently been considerable progress made in the fight against colon cancer. Increased screening, with the goal of finding and removing pre-cancerous polyps, has helped decrease the rate of colon cancer by 30 percent over the past 15 years. Earlier detection has also led to more effective treatment and higher cure rates. The overwhelming majority of colon cancers grow slowly, starting as small polyps and developing into cancer over many years. For this reason, periodic screening is highly effective in preventing colon cancer, which rarely causes symptoms until the more advanced stages. It is recommended that both men and women undergo screening starting at age 50. Those with a strong family history of colon cancer should start screening even earlier.

Colonoscopy remains the most sensitive test available for identifying pre-cancerous polyps, and it allows for polyp removal during the same procedure. Other forms of screening, such as testing for blood in the stool or newer stool tests that can identify cancerous DNA, are designed to detect cancer rather than prevent it. “Colonoscopy offers not only screening, but detection and prevention,” says Dr. Echelmeyer. “No other screening modality can provide this.”

Only 40 percent of patients over the age of 50 have had a colonoscopy. The inconvenience of a bowel prep, the need to take a day off work for the procedure, and an understandable reluctance toward the procedure itself remain the major barriers to more widespread screening.

If you are over 50 or have a family history of colon cancer, talk to your doctor about screening options. If you have already had your screening, take the opportunity to talk to your friends and loved ones about your experience and help us raise awareness for the second leading cause of cancer death in this country. It’s a conversation that could a save a life.

Jason Dundulis has his medical degree from MU and is a gastroenterologist at JCMG.