There are simply too many people who are still getting and dying from colon cancer, a preventable disease, because they failed to get screened for it.
For example, let’s consider Joy Ginsburg. Joy’s experience shows that even some doctors may need to be pushed into encouraging their patients to be tested. Ms. Ginsburg was 48 when her primary care doctor suggested that she have a baseline colonoscopy.
But the gastroenterologist she consulted was reluctant to perform one. “He made fun of me,” she said. “I was not yet 50 and had no symptoms, risk factors or family history of colon cancer.”
Still, Ms. Ginsburg was aware that last year the American Cancer Society had lowered the recommended age to start screening from 50 to 45, so she insisted. And it was lucky that she did. A very large precancerous polyp, the size of a golf ball, was found that required surgical removal along with 40 percent of her colon.
“If I had waited until 50 to get screened, I would have had a very different story to tell,” she said. “Now I’m screaming from the rooftops for everyone to get screened. Having a colonoscopy is a lot easier than getting cancer.”
Five years ago, the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention established the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable with a goal to get 80 percent of all Americans ages 50 to 75 screened for cancers of the colon and rectum by any medically accepted method by 2018. At the time, only about 65 percent of those in the designated age group were up-to-date with an approved test.
Now, with colorectal cancer being found in an increasing number of younger adults, the pressure is on to screen millions more adults in every community of the United States. The current goal is to test at least 80 percent of residents ages 45 to 75 in each community using an approved method. More than 1,800 community organizations have already lined up to help make this happen.
“We’re not insisting that everyone get a colonoscopy, even though it’s the gold standard for detecting and preventing colon cancer,” said Dr. Richard C. Wender, chief cancer control officer at the cancer society. “A lot of people don’t want it, some can’t afford it, and sometimes it’s not available.”
Colorectal cancer is the second most common cause of cancer deaths in this country, with more than 51,000 people expected to die of the disease this year. Although the overall death rate has been dropping for several decades, thanks largely to increased detection and removal of precancerous polyps, deaths among people younger than 55 have increased by 1 percent a year since 2007. This means it’s all the more important to encourage screening among middle-aged adults.
As important as getting screened for colorectal cancer is the need to avoid risk factors for the disease that individuals can control. These include being overweight or physically inactive, smoking, consuming alcohol immoderately, and eating lots of red meat and processed meat.
Risk factors that are unavoidable include getting older; having an inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease), or having close relatives (such as parents or siblings) who had colorectal cancer or adenomatous polyps or an inherited cancer syndrome like Lynch syndrome or familial polyposis. Doctors may advise people with these risk factors to get screened for colorectal cancer as often as every year or two.
Article adapted from The New York Times, March 11, 2019, Jane E. Brody