Advance with MUSC Health

Colon Cancer Awareness Month: Why Colon Cancer Screening is So Important

Advance With MUSC Health
March 06, 2023
Stethoscope with tag that reads Colon Cancer

Detecting colon cancer early can save your life! In this article, Family Nurse Practitioner Kimberly Powell, FNP-BC from MUSC Health Florence - Gastroenterology, explains colon cancer risk factors and symptoms as well as what’s involved in — and the importance of — colonoscopies.

Colon Cancer Symptoms

The American Cancer Society’s new guidelines recommend that colorectal cancer screenings begin at age 45 for adults who are at average risk. Family history plays a role in this as well. For example, if a close family member, especially a parent, was diagnosed with colon cancer at 50 years old, then their children will need to start screening at age 40. Symptoms such as a change in bowel habits, unintentional weight loss, rectal bleeding and unexplained abdominal pain are a few reasons to see a gastroenterologist as soon as possible. These are just some of the more common symptoms but doesn’t necessarily mean you are not having an issue. This is very important because the early stages of colorectal cancer can sometimes have no symptoms at all. That’s why detecting colon cancer early can save your life! 

What’s Involved in a Colonoscopy

The first recommendation for colon cancer screening will always be a colonoscopy because it is a more accurate test with a scope. There are a few types of laxatives for bowel prep including liquid prep or tablets. Patient preference is important because the entire colon has to be completely cleaned out to ensure good views. Adequate prep of all areas of the colon and rectum is important to be able to clearly evaluate and rule out cancer. Screening colonoscopies are covered by most insurance plans. I feel this is the best choice for colorectal cancer screening because the endoscopist can inspect, evaluate, obtain a biopsy and remove and diagnose abnormalities inside the colon and rectum. 

What’s a Polyp?

What are polyps? A polyp is a small growth, usually noncancerous, protruding from the internal wall of the colon. Polyps can grow in several locations in the GI tract but are mostly found in the colon. Polyps can either be noncancerous, precancerous, and/or cancerous. These are typically removed and sent to Pathology for a detailed diagnosis. Recommendations on when to repeat a Colonoscopy depends on the individual’s risk factors including age, history of polyps, and family history of colon cancer. The number of polyps found, types of polyps and successful bowel prep all play a part in deciding when your next colonoscopy is. Talk to your doctor about adopting a high-fiber diet to ensure healthy bowels and exercise to help reduce the risk of polyps. 

Is a Colonoscopy Uncomfortable?

As with all medical procedures, a colonoscopy can be a little unnerving, but most patients tell me it wasn’t as big a deal as they thought it would be. Our medical team will make you feel comfortable and at ease from the minute you walk in the door. We use propofol for sedation which allows you to have a “great nap” without feeling anything and also helps patients wake up quickly without a hangover effect. We recommend taking the day before the procedure and the day of the procedure off from work so you can take the prep as prescribed and rest after the colonoscopy. 

Are At-Home Colonoscopies Accurate?

There are at-home colorectal cancer screening tests as well. In this case, the patient receives a kit in the mail with instructions on how to do the test and how to send a stool sample back to the lab. This type of screening tool can be beneficial for patients who are mentally or physically unable to tolerate a colonoscopy. At-home screening tests can detect both altered DNA and blood in the stool. If this is found it means there is a presence of abnormal cells or blood in the stool which may indicate cancer or precancer tumors. The colon sheds cells from its lining constantly, so the test may detect abnormal DNA changes in certain genes. There is no bowel prep for this test and insurance generally covers 100% of the cost. If the at-home screening test comes back positive, the patient will need to be scheduled for a colonoscopy within the month to rule out colorectal cancer. Unfortunately, home tests cannot diagnose cancer or differentiate between benign (non-cancerous) and malignant (cancerous). Studies show that 13% of at-home colorectal cancer screening tests have false positives, but they cannot be proven to be false positives without a colonoscopy. Sometimes this can cause unnecessary worry or anxiety in the patient. 

Come see me today for a colon cancer screening. I will be glad to discuss your current GI concerns and answer all of your questions regarding prep and procedure, as well as any GI problems. These may range from trouble swallowing, acid reflux/heartburn, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, rectal bleeding, liver disease, gallbladder dysfunction, unintentional weight loss and more. I will also see you after the procedure to discuss the physician’s notes and the pathology report. 

Kimberly Powell, NPKimberly Powell, FNP-BC is a family nurse practitioner in Florence specializing in gastroenterology and hepatology and is accepting new patients. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call 843-674-1530.