Colon screening often avoided, but it can be lifesaver

Now is time to take steps to prevent cancer

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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This year, more than 103,000 Americans are expected to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer -- that’s the equivalent of nearly two-thirds of Vancouver’s population.

It’s the third most common cancer among men and women in the U.S., and it is expected to kill more Americans this year than either breast cancer or prostate cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

Despite its prevalence, many people don’t comply with screening recommendations, said Dr. Son Do, a Vancouver gastroenterologist. Embarrassment and fear are usually to blame, he said.

What people don’t realize, Do said, is that screening can prevent colon cancer.

“Preventative health is very important,” Do said. “Don’t just ignore it because it’s embarrassing or you hear bad things. Later you could find out it’s cancer, and it’s too late.”

The American Cancer Society recommends men and women begin screening procedures, such as colonoscopies, at age 50. Those with risk factors such as family history, Crohn’s disease or colitis, should be screened at an earlier age.

Typically, a colonoscopy, which can detect cancer or precancerous polyps, is performed every 10 years. Precancerous polyps can be removed during the colonoscopy and prevent the cancer from developing, Do said.

“Screening colonoscopies can save lives,” he said.

Regular screening is important, Do said, because colorectal cancer doesn’t usually show symptoms -- like blood in the stool and abdominal pain -- until it’s advanced.

Free screening

In honor of Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, Advanced Gastroenterology in Salmon Creek offered on March 21 free colonoscopies to 18 Clark County residents who couldn’t afford the procedures.

Jeff Evans of Battle Ground took advantage of the event at his wife’s prompting.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her,” he said. “I think most men are like that, if they don’t have a good woman behind them, no pun intended.”

The 46-year-old had a colonoscopy performed seven or eight years ago after experiencing concerning symptoms.

This month’s event allowed Evans, who doesn’t have medical insurance, to receive a follow-up screening he couldn’t otherwise afford.

“I’m not really stuck on the stigma of it all,” Evans said. “I’m not embarrassed about it at all.”

“It’s a necessary procedure when you get close to your 50s,” he added.

Sue Warren of Vancouver signed up for the free procedure after watching her sister fight Stage 2 colon cancer during the last year. She had her last colonoscopy eight years ago.

“Since I have no medical insurance, I would not have been able to get one myself, because I couldn’t afford it,” the 62-year-old said.

This is the second year the clinic, where Do works, has offered the free procedures. Last year, doctors performed 13 colonoscopies. Nearly half of the colonoscopies detected precancerous polyps, Do said.

According to the cancer society, colorectal cancer incidence rates have been decreasing for most of the past two decades. The decline has largely been attributed to increases in the use of colorectal cancer screening tests that allow for early detection.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.