Early detection key to preventing colorectal cancer

March 21, 2016

Dr FarrarenviroDid you know there’s a test that can actually prevent cancer? “That’s what’s great about colonoscopy,” says William Farrar, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing. “If we spot a precancerous growth during the test, we can usually remove it immediately.” 

That’s something Dr. Farrar knows as both a physician and a patient. After his father was diagnosed with colon cancer, Dr. Farrar had his first colonoscopy at age 40. During the procedure, one large polyp and three smaller polyps were discovered and removed. He recently had a three-year follow-up exam, where an additional polyp was discovered and removed. Dr. Farrar is grateful he began screening when he did. He says it’s likely that the large polyp would have developed into cancer before he turned 50 — the age that people without risk factors (such as family history) typically begin having colorectal cancer screening exams.

“With colonoscopy, we have the potential to catch and prevent the disease before it develops,” says Dr. Farrar. “That’s why it’s such an incredibly important tool.”

Still, not everyone who could benefit from colonoscopy has the exam. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 20 million adults in the U.S. have not had the recommended colorectal cancer screening exam. Why avoid a potentially life-saving test? Dr. Farrar says some people fear the colonoscopy itself, while others want to avoid the bowel preparation that takes place before the exam. He believes both concerns are unwarranted.

“The prep was not bad, and the test itself was completely painless,” he says of his own experience. Most of his patients tell him the same thing. “Even patients who are nervous coming in for the exam will usually say afterward that it was nothing. It’s never as bad as people imagine it will be.”

Adults with no known risk factors should begin colorectal cancer screening at age 50. Screening should begin earlier for those with risk factors, such as a family history of colorectal cancer or inflammatory bowel disease.

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