Turning 50? It’s Time for a Colonoscopy.
By Dr. Jerald D. Wishner, FACS, FASCRS, Co-Director, Institute for Robotic and Minimally Invasive Surgery and Medical Director, Colorectal Surgery Program at Northern Westchester Hospital
One of the most common killers is colon cancer, yet fewer than half of eligible Americans get a colonoscopy. It’s a statistic that is really bothersome to me. A colonoscopy is the gold standard of colon cancer screening, and the research proves it saves lives.
Colon cancer begins in polyps inside the colon, and it can take five to eight years to develop. The promise of a colonoscopy is that, if pre-cancerous polyps are found, the doctor can remove them during the procedure. With mammograms, the hope is that you’ll find cancer early; Colonoscopy takes that a step further by actually preventing cancer from developing in the first place by removing these precancerous polyps.
One of the biggest misconceptions of colonoscopies is that they’ll be painful or uncomfortable. I’ll admit it; it doesn’t sound like fun, but most people will barely know they’ve had one. An anesthesiologist sedates the patient, making the procedure painless. Other than some post-colonoscopy grogginess and a little bloating, you won’t feel a thing. The toughest part is the day before, when you have to take laxatives to clear the colon.
People also find the procedure embarrassing, but a little embarrassment is much better than colon cancer. Who should be screened? Every American at age 50; people with symptoms or a family history of colon cancer should get one sooner. If a parent or sibling was diagnosed with colon cancer, plan to go in when you’re 10 years younger than the family member’s age at diagnosis. For example, if dad was diagnosed at 55, you should get your first colonoscopy at 45.
If the screen turns up precancerous polyps, your doctor may schedule you for another colonoscopy within a few years. However, if there are none, you can wait another seven to ten years before you get screened again. Just don’t put off that first screen. If you wait until you have symptoms such as pain or you’re not moving your bowels, it will be very difficult to cure you. The cancer has had a chance to grow and your chances of recovering will be much lower.
Should a colonoscopy detect cancer that can’t be treated during the procedure, surgery is the next step. There have been advancements in the surgery for colon cancer, something that is unique to Northern Westchester Hospital: Colorectal surgeons at the hospital can now use robotic surgery. That means much smaller incisions, less damage to surrounding tissues and organs, and a much faster recovery.
The crucial message is that you need to be screened at age 50. I had one patient who got a colonoscopy on his 50th birthday. Of course, that’s not necessary. But be sure to schedule an appointment as soon as possible afterwards: Colonoscopy is not nearly as bad as you think, and we can save countless lives each year. There’s no debate about that.
Visit www.nwhroboticsurgery.org to learn more about robotic surgery at Northern Westchester Hospital.