A colonoscopy is one of the most common ways to detect colon and rectal cancer at their earliest stages, and helps save lives. However, the test isn’t needed as often as many people think. Most people need it only once every 10 years, while a few others need it more frequently if they develop large polyps — grape-like growths also known as adenomas — which may eventually turn into cancer.
“If no adenomas or cancer is found during your colonoscopy and you don’t have any risk factors for the disease, your chance of developing it within the next 10 years is extremely low,” says Dr. David Hall, a Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group double board-certified internal medicine and pediatrics doctor. “The test misses very few adenomas, and colorectal cancer generally grows slowly.”
Doctors can detect and remove polyps during a colonoscopy. “If polyps are found, your gastroenterologist will tailor a plan for you and advise you on when you should have your next colonoscopy,” says Dr. Hall.
In addition to the inconvenience and the preparation, a colonoscopy has a very small risk of damaging the colon. Most health plans, including Medicare, cover the exam, provided it is performed at appropriate intervals.
How to protect against colon cancer
According to Dr. Hall, colon cancer screenings should begin at age 50 for people of average risk and repeated in 10 years if no abnormalities are found.
Ask your doctor when and how often you should have a colonoscopy, especially if you have inflammatory bowel disease; a history of multiple, large or high-risk adenomas; or family history of colorectal cancer. Routine checks aren’t usually needed after age 75.
“An alternative screening method approved for detecting colorectal cancer is flexible sigmoidoscopy in combination with fecal immunochemical testing (FIT), which is a stool-based test,” says Dr. Hall.
Dr. Hall also offers the following lifestyle tips for reducing your risk:
- Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Cut down on fatty foods and red or processed meats.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Exercise for 30 minutes, five or more times per week.
- Limit alcohol consumption. Women should have no more than one drink per day; men should have no more than two.
- Quit smoking. If you don’t smoke, don’t start.
At Sharp Rees-Stealy, we want to empower you to make well-informed choices about health screenings. That’s why we’ve made it our priority to support our doctors in helping you make smart and effective decisions by participating in Choosing Wisely®.
Choosing Wisely, an initiative of the ABIM Foundation, educates patients and doctors on selecting the most effective treatment available and avoiding unproductive, costly procedures. Sharp Rees-Stealy is the only medical group in Southern California to participate in this national campaign.