by Katie Martin, Family Nurse Practitioner at Barnesville Area Clinic
Since the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the United States, many patients have delayed their preventative screenings and annual physical appointments. While the Center for Disease Control (CDC) initially recommended that routine screenings be delayed due to safety & supply concerns surrounding COVID-10, we have now had time to modify our processes to ensure safety and to secure an adequate supply of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). That’s why healthcare providers, including me, are now strongly encouraging patients to come in for these screenings. Screening tests are tests that can find disease in its earliest stages, before a person shows any signs or symptoms. We are already seeing the negative impacts of delayed screenings resulting in poorer outcomes when cancer isn’t detected early on.
One of the essential screenings I want to encourage is for colon cancer. The American Cancer Society (ACS) states that colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Over 100,000 people are expected to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in the year 2020. With that being said, the death rates for colorectal cancers have actually been decreasing, likely due to the preventative screenings. This is really exciting news to those of us who work in healthcare, because it means what we are doing is working!
There are several different options for colorectal cancer screenings. The “gold standard” is the colonoscopy. This is usually the best option because if there are any pre-cancerous polyps found during the screening, they are removed right then before they turn into cancer. Screening colonoscopies are recommended to start at age 50, but depending on your family history your healthcare provider may want to start them sooner. If the colonoscopy is normal, another one is not needed for 10 years. If polyps are found and removed, you may need to return sooner depending on what type of polyp is discovered.
In instances where a colonoscopy is not ideal, stool-based tests, including the Cologuard and FIT tests, are options; however, they must be done more frequently. The Cologuard test involves a kit that is sent to your home and a sample is mailed in. The sample is tested for blood and DNA changes. If it is negative, it should be repeated in 3 years. If positive, a colonoscopy should follow. There may be other stool-based tests that your healthcare provider recommends, but these are less specific and need to be repeated yearly. It’s important to note that compared to at-home colon cancer test options, including Cologuard and the FIT, colonoscopies are better at finding pre-cancer and cancer cells.
One reason that I often hear as to why patients put off colonoscopy is because of the prep that is required prior to the procedure. I get it, and always remind my patients that while it may be a bit uncomfortable for a short while, it can save your life. Many times after the procedure, patients say it wasn’t as bad as they expected.
If you are due for a colonoscopy, please, talk with your health care provider as soon as possible to get one scheduled or if nothing else, meet with your healthcare provider and discuss which option is right for you. Whatever you do, don’t put off your colon cancer screening any longer. A delay in the diagnosis of colorectal cancer could shorten your chances of survival.