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Current data indicate that colon cancer is the 3rd most common cancer and 2nd most common cause of cancer death in the US. Because of these alarming statistics, a great deal of research has focused on understanding who gets colon cancer and what the medical community can do at preventing those from getting colon cancer. Groundbreaking research by Rockefeller in the 1970s, Vogelstein in the 1980s and countless other scientists since then have uncovered the current paradigm for colon cancer.
“Colon Polyps are the precursors to Colon Cancer!”
Based on this understanding several pivotal trials conducted in the 1990s including the US National Polyp Study and the Veterans Affairs Cooperative Study determined that if polyps are removed through a colonoscopy the risk of colon cancer drops considerably. This undertaking is important as polyps are generally asymptomatic and if a patient has developed symptoms they likely have already converted to colon cancer. No one wants to hear the word “cancer” and while the purpose of colonoscopies is to detect and remove polyps, gastroenterologists like myself also want to detect cancer at its earliest stage so that a patient can be cured.
This finding has led to the current recommendation that everyone undergo screening colonoscopy for polyp detection and removal upon turning 50 years old. Screening should occur before this age if one’s risk is higher than the general population. Risk factors include, for example, family history of colon polyps or colon cancer, certain genetic syndromes, and African American ethnicity. Please visit my office to determine if you are at higher risk.
Despite all these efforts and clear benefits a majority of the population sadly do not undergo screening colonoscopies. This is despite all efforts made to increase awareness including pleas made by national TV news anchor, Katie Couric, former President Clinton’s announcement that March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month, and various public service announcements made by CBS. To support the cause The Affordable Care Act in March 2010 allowed for screening colonoscopies to be covered at no cost to the patient.