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Colonoscopies save lives

Doctor talking to patient in examination room

Did you know that more people under the age of 50 are now being diagnosed with colon cancer than ever before?

In fact, that age group is the only group seeing an increase in cancer cases, Essentia Health reported.

"While alarming, data is still being analyzed to understand how this may influence major screening guidelines," said Dr. Aaron Chan, a gastroenterologist at Essentia Health-St. Joseph's Medical Center, in a news release. "Currently, screening typically begins at age 50, so it's a cause for concern since it is a preventable disease."

Chan said research is being done to figure out why they're seeing an increase in a younger demographic. Data suggests that it's likely related to:

• poor diet,

• lack of exercise,

• higher obesity rates.

"It is so important for people of all ages to be proactive with their primary care doctor," Chan said. "If they notice any changes in their bowel habits, blood in their stools, abdominal pain or weight loss, they need to discuss it with their doctor to see what might be going on." In some cases, a colonoscopy may be ordered.

A colonoscopy is a procedure performed with a fiberoptic scope containing a camera and a light that doctors can insert into the colon, otherwise known as the large intestine. Colonoscopy is one way to test for colorectal cancer and is the only screening test which may prevent colon cancer from developing.

"Not only is it diagnostic, meaning we can look for cancer or polyps that could turn into cancer, but it's also therapeutic in that we can remove those precancerous growths or polyps at the same time," Chan said.

The most important thing when it comes to colorectal cancer is to catch it early, before it spreads. Prevention and early detection are key to increasing survival rates. The five-year survival rate for colorectal cancer is significantly better if found prior to spreading. Survival rates are 90 percent when it is found at the local stage, meaning while it is contained to the colon or rectum. If the cancer spreads to the regional stage, or closely outside the colon, survival rates go down to 71 percent. When the cancer spreads farther into the body, the five-year survival rates drop to 14 percent.

What should be expected when going in for a colonoscopy?

The day before the procedure patients are required to stop solid foods in favor of a clear liquid diet in order to void the colon of waste and prepare it for the procedure. They are also given a solution to drink which clears stool from the colon. Once inside the procedure room, sedation is given while the doctor examines the colon through the scope. After the procedure, patients are watched during recovery and are required to have someone else drive home. There is very little downtime after the procedure and if everything is normal without a family history, it isn't necessary to get tested for another 10 years. If a polyp is removed or there is a family history, colonoscopies may be needed every three to five years.

Talk to your primary care provider about your risks and if a colonoscopy is needed.

Colorectal cancer facts you need to know

• Colorectal cancer is the second most common cause of cancer deaths in the U.S.

• Colorectal cancer is the third most common type of cancer in the U.S.

• Colorectal cancer is sometimes symptomless, but symptoms can include:

• A change in bowel habits,

• Blood in the stool,

• Abdominal pain,

• Unexplained weight loss,

• 50,000 Americans die from colorectal cancer every year,

• 1 in 23 people will develop colorectal cancer,

• 71 percent of cases occur in the colon, 29 percent in the rectum,

• It affects men and women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds,

• It happens most in people over the age of 50, but cases are on the rise in those under 50,

• The median age of diagnosis is 72 for women and 68 for men,

• If colorectal cancer is caught before it spreads, five-year survival rates are 90 percent.

While no one loves getting a colonoscopy, its importance can't be overstated. "A colonoscopy is one day that can save the rest of your life and it certainly beats having surgery or chemotherapy," Chan said. Certainly the old adage, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" applies to colonoscopy, Essentia Health reported.