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If You’re Over 45, This Test Could Save Your Life

Colonoscopies are an indispensable, life-saving tool in the fight against colorectal cancer. This screening method can identify and remove masses in the large intestine, rectum and bowel. These masses, called polyps, often occur without symptoms and can be benign or carry cancerous or precancerous cells.

In the United States, approximately 15 million colonoscopies are performed each year. Thanks to awareness campaigns and increased access to simple scheduling, that number is expected to climb this year and in the years that follow.

However, there are still many individuals in our community who do not undergo colonoscopy, according to a Community Needs Assessment of the Abington - Jefferson Health service area. Here is what you need to know about the importance of this life-saving exam.

About Colonoscopies

A colonoscopy is an endoscopic procedure in which a gastroenterologist or surgeon inserts a tiny camera into the colon and looks for irritation or growths in the bowel. Because of the nature of the screening, preparation utilizing laxatives is necessary beforehand. A light “twilight” anesthesia is used during the procedure.

“Colonoscopy is unique in medicine because it is one procedure that is both diagnostic and therapeutic,” said Steven A. Fassler, MD, the section chief of Colorectal Surgery at Abington - Jefferson Health. “Colonoscopies can identify and remove polyps at one time.”

For those with an average risk of colorectal cancer, colonoscopies should be scheduled every 10 years beginning at age 45, according to the American Cancer Society. Those with a family history of colorectal cancer, personal history of cancer or chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), should begin regular testing sooner, as recommended by their doctor. Doctors may also take into account an individual’s ethnic background in determining when to start screening.

“Some of the barriers to colonoscopy are the anxiety of patients who are not accustomed to anesthesia, the prep and the pre-procedure appointment with the doctor,” said Dr. Fassler.

Scheduling Made Easier

While the prep and anesthesia are a given, the pre-procedure appointment can be skipped by some individuals, offering them the option to schedule the colonoscopy straight away. This is called Open Access Colonoscopy. For this option, a few online forms need to be completed.

“This option is valuable for patients who might have limited time off from work,” said Fassler.

Abington - Jefferson Health is also incorporating colonoscopy scheduling coordinators who can help with appointments, insurance and responding to patient questions.

“All of this is meant to make the process easier, so there’s no excuse to skip a colonoscopy,” said Dr. Fassler.

An Alternative to Colonoscopy

“Our goal is to have 80 percent of patients screened through traditional colonoscopy,” said Dr. Fassler. But some older patients or those with additional health problems may not be healthy enough to undergo anesthesia, making the fecal immunochemical test (or FIT)--a simple at-home stool test--a valuable option. It is ideal for individuals who absolutely refuse colonoscopy.

FIT can identify a problem in the colon or rectum, but it cannot provide therapeutic treatment (removal of polyps) immediately like colonoscopy can. Instead, patients may need to return to the office for additional testing or treatment. FIT tests need to be repeated annually whereas colonoscopy is repeated every ten years in most individuals who do not have risk factors.

This is why Dr. Fassler urges patients to receive a colonoscopy treatment the first time around.

“You do lose a day, but the prep isn’t so bad, and you’ll get a great nap. Plus, you get ten years without stress about the possibility of colon cancer.”

Talk to your doctor today about the right colon cancer screening option. 

To find an Abington - Jefferson Health gastroenterologist or colorectal surgeon to perform colonoscopy, talk to your healthcare professional or call 215-481-MEDI (6634).

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