Middle-Aged Woman with glasses after colon cancer screening

Colon cancer screening: Easy and worth it

Getting screened for colon cancer is never at the top of anyone’s list of favorite things to do, but Pat Peterson took it in stride.

“I’ve had a colonoscopy before,” she said. “Yes, it’s unpleasant, it’s disruptive, but you do it.”

When it was time for Pat, 68, to get her latest screening, her doctor recommended Cologuard®. This new at-home screening test involves testing your stool for DNA changes that may indicate colon cancer or precancerous polyps.

The Bloomington, Illinois, woman found the process easy. “It wasn’t the most fun in the world, but it was no big deal,” she said. “The presentation of the product and the instructions were very clear. There was no confusion about what you were supposed to do when.”

Unfortunately, Pat’s Cologuard test came back with a positive, indicating she needed a follow-up screening. This time, it would have to be a colonoscopy.

‘Colonoscopy has come a long way’

Many people are hesitant to have a colonoscopy, which is the gold standard of screening for colon cancer. Using a colonoscope, a flexible tube with a light and small video camera, the doctor looks at the entire length of the colon and rectum. A clear liquid diet and colon cleanse is required the day before. You are sedated during the procedure. The doctor takes tissue samples or removes any polyps.

“There’s a fear of the process and some urban legends around colonoscopy, so some people are reluctant to jump at the option of doing it,” said Omar Khokhar, MD, a gastroenterologist at OSF Medical Group – Gastroenterology in Bloomington.

Colonoscopy equipment for colon cancer screening

“Colonoscopy has come a long way since the early 1990s,” he said. “The instruments are different. A lot of folks come to me and are hesitant based on their previous experience and other people’s experience, but the sedation used is a lot easier to induce and wake up from, and our scopes are much softer and more flexible, so the risk of any kind of injury is much less than it used to be.”

Pat had a colonoscopy in the mid-2000s and wasn’t afraid to have another, but she lives alone and doesn’t have family nearby and wasn’t sure who to ask to drive her to the appointment, wait, and then take her home. A friend offered to help.

“That was really a stumbling block for me for a while,” she said. “It’s a personal thing to ask someone to help you with.”

Dr. Khokhar performed the colonoscopy and was able to remove the precancerous polyps in Pat’s colon.

Make a plan

If you’re due for colon screening and you haven’t yet made an appointment, Pat recommends sticking to a schedule and just getting it done. Think about the advice you’d give someone else in your situation and make sure you stay on top of your health.

“Don’t stew on it. I stewed on it for too long, and I ended up with some pathology,” she said. “The doctor was able to get rid of it, but who knows where that could have gone?”

People with an average risk of colon cancer should start getting screened at age 45 or 50, depending on the recommendation of a doctor. If you’re not sure whether a colonoscopy or an at-home screening method is right for you, talk to your doctor.

“The best test,” Dr. Khokhar said, “is the one you’re willing to do.”