Screening is critical in diagnosing, treating colon cancer

Sponsored by: Palmetto Primary Care

Colon cancer is common, but because it has few symptoms, it often sneaks up on patients. If the cancer goes undiagnosed and spreads, there’s very little doctors can do. Yet there is good news: if detected early, colon cancer is very treatable.

The second leading cause of cancer death in the United States, doctors are urging those age 50 and older to schedule a colonoscopy – even if they aren’t too thrilled about that particular screening.

Some patients may experience rectal bleeding, abdominal pain, a change in bowel habits or unintended weight loss as signs of colon cancer. But that’s not the norm.

“The biggest problem is that the majority of the time you have no symptoms,” said Dr. Aaron Domm with Summerville GI and Advanced Endoscopy. “It just sneaks up on you.”

Domm realizes people worry a colonoscopy could be painful or embarrassing. Patients are sedated during the procedure so it’s painless. And it only takes about three hours.

If doctors discover polyps (abnormal growths), they can remove them during the colonoscopy. If polyps or early-stage growth can’t be removed during the screening, the patient would be sent to a surgeon who would remove that portion of the colon. If the mass has grown and spread, the patient would be sent to an oncologist for further treatment, including radiation and chemotherapy.

“It’s a great cancer to screen for because if you catch it early, there’s a very low mortality rate,” Domm said. “If we catch it early, you’ll do fine. We can usually diagnose and fix the problem all at the same time. If you let it go or stick your head in the sand and if it’s spread, by the time we find it there's not a lot we can do.”

It may seem like a rather ominous warning, but Domm hopes people will take this cancer seriously and get screened. If you don’t have a close family (parents, siblings) history of colon cancer, it’s recommended to get screened at age 50 and then again every 10 years. Those with a family history should be screened at age 40 and then again every five years.

African-Americans are also at a higher risk for colon cancer so screening is especially important. To help reduce your chances of getting colon cancer, Domm recommends regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, a diet low in processed meats and not smoking.

“Talk to family or friends who had the screening. It's really not that bad,” Domm said. “Come in and talk to a gastrointestinologist and they will put you at ease and explain the process.”

Domm said he tells patients everyone is nervous and embarrassed, but this screening isn’t a big deal to the doctors and staff. By lunchtime, Domm has done a dozen colonoscopies and at that point all the backsides look the same.

“Going through a little bit of embarrassment and hassle beats going through surgery and chemo,” he said.