Colon cancer is preventable, yet over 130,000 people develop the disease annually! The cancer begins from small growths called polyps, which can readily be removed by a colonoscopy before invasive cancers develop.
Each year, the second most common cancer causes over 50,000 Americans to lose their lives. The fact is that the vast majority of these deaths were preventable. Yet every week, I, like many physicians, am forced to explain to another patient and their family that my screening colonoscopy, typically late, performed more than 10 years after the recommended time, has resulted in my discovery of a cancer.
Had the patient presented several years earlier, at the recommended time for screening, a small polyp (small benign growth) would have been removed within several minutes and the future cancer prevented. As a profession, gastroenterologists continue to be stunned by the fact that a preventable cause of cancer death is taking more lives per year than American lives lost during the entire Vietnam War. While most primary care physicians and insurance carriers are recommending colorectal cancer screening, less than half of those persons in New York who need a colonoscopy have undergone the test.
There are many reasons that this "lost opportunity" occurs. There is a fear of damaging the colon during the procedure. There is fear of pain from the procedure. There is fear of the preparation for the procedure. Worst, there is a misunderstanding on the part of patients of the risks of developing colon cancer.
Most people who develop colon cancer have no family history. Although there is a genetic component, colon cancer most often occurs as a process of the environment. Everyone is at risk!
(L-R) Dr. Scott Tenner, and his partner, Robin Baradarian MD, Chief of Gastroenterology, Beth Israel - Brooklyn.
In the 21st century, the procedure is almost always painless as the anesthetic of choice, propofol, allows a safe and comfortable light sleep during the procedure. The risk of significant damage (perforation) to the colon (1/5000) during the procedure is far less than the risk of developing colon cancer (1/16).
Even if damage to the colon occurs during the procedure, the colon is typically readily repaired, and the risk of dying from the damage is far less than dying from the colon cancer that could have been prevented.
Lastly, although there have been improvements in the preparation for the procedure to "cleanse the colon," the preparation is unfortunately like drinking a gallon of seawater. However, to drink this solution once every 5-10 years and undergo a colonoscopy to prevent colon cancer, the second most common cause of cancer death, should be considered a blessing, not torture.
Despite the fact that colon cancer is a preventable cancer by allowing the removal of these precancerous growths, polyps, the death rate persists. Although we have received support from the media, and many political leaders, the opportunity to prevent colon cancer continues to be lost and the number of people suffering from colon cancer continues to mount.
Dr. Scott Tenner, is director of Medical Education and Research, Division of Gastroenterology a Maimonides Medical Center and Associate Professor of Medicine, State University of New York - Health Sciences Center.
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