Colonoscopy: Simply a lifesaving screening

March 1, 2018 Rodney J. Kratz, M.D.

  • Catching colon cancer early usually means it’s curable
  • Do not let misapprehension about colonoscopy preparation deter you
  • Colonoscopies are safe and performed by experts

Colon cancer survival rate and stage at diagnosis

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “About nine out of every ten people whose colorectal cancers are found early and treated appropriately are still alive five years later.” The CDC also says, “Of cancers that affect both men and women, colorectal cancer is the second leading cancer killer in the United States.”

You need to understand these two seemingly contradictory statistics. Taken together, here’s what they mean. Colorectal cancer is highly treatable and survivable when detected early; but if people decline to get screened as recommended, colorectal cancer may not be found until it is at a more advanced stage and has spread into other parts of the body.

What does “found early” mean? Clinically, it means it is caught in one of the early stages. What are the stages of cancer?

Stages of cancer 

Staging is the process of determining to what extent the cancer has grown within the colon or rectum or if it has spread to other areas of the body. The higher the stage, the more advanced the cancer. Information obtained from screening tests and biopsied tissue samples is used to help determine cancer stage.

There are two staging levels: clinical and pathologic. The clinical stage is based on information obtained before any surgery. This information is obtained from the biopsy, imaging tests and physical exams. The pathologic stage is determined using the information found in the clinical stage, together with the information discovered as a result of surgery.

For more information about colon cancer stages, visit the Swedish Colorectal Cancer Info Center.

Colonoscopy basics

The purpose of a colonoscopy is to find out if you have colorectal cancer. It’s an important screening because colorectal cancer usually presents no symptoms until it has advanced in stage. Polyps are often discovered during a colonoscopy, and they may be removed whether they are benign or potentially malignant.

While there are other types of screenings, like a home kit that looks for blood in the stool, colonoscopy has proven to be very reliable. In fact, some of the other tests still require a follow-up colonoscopy to get the most accurate readings. 

Get started with screenings

Are you age 50 or older? In most cases, that means it is time to schedule a colonoscopy. If you have a family history of colon cancer, start at age 40. Don’t be put off by jokes or tall tales about the bowel preparation the day before the procedure. Preparation involves a period of fasting and a laxative, which are minor inconveniences in exchange for a potentially life-saving screening. The procedure itself involves placement of a small camera inside the bowels so that the gastroenterologist or colorectal surgeon can examine the colon and intestines, and is performed under anesthesia. You’ll be on your way home in an hour or so, although you’ll need to arrange to have someone else drive.

In my case, I had my first colonoscopy at age 40 because of my family history. Watch the video my family and I made before and after: How to Prepare for Colonoscopy. And, the prep wasn’t bad at all! 

Talk to your health care provider about a referral for a colonoscopy, or find the right Swedish doctor near you. Don’t put it off—the most curable cancers are those that are found early.

Rodney Kratz, MD, is a colorectal surgeon at Swedish Colon & Rectal Clinic in Issaquah and Seattle.

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