One of the less-publicized side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is the effect it’s had on preventative care. In the last year, many people cancelled regular checkups, postponed annual screenings and put off needed care because of office closings, financial concerns or fear of being exposed to the virus. But as we begin to try to return to some form of normalcy, it’s critical that we get back on track with routine checkups, screenings and office visits. As March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, it’s a good reminder that one of the screenings you should stay current on is a colon cancer screening. Colorectal cancer rates have been decreasing over the last 20 years, in part because an increase in awareness has led to people getting screenings earlier, along with the ability to detect and remove colorectal polyps before they become cancerous. Still, colon cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer death in Tennessee. More than 3,300 people are expected to be diagnosed with colon cancer in the state this year, and more than 1,200 Tennesseans will die from the disease. Unlike some forms of cancer, colon cancer is preventable. Colon cancer screenings can catch precancerous lesions before they ever have the chance to turn into cancer, meaning simply getting a colon cancer screening can save your life.
“Colon cancer affects both men and women from all ethnicities,” said Blount Memorial gastroenterologist Dr. William Lyles. “However, it’s also one of the most-preventable types of cancer we treat. It’s not only just preventable, it’s curable when detected at an early stage. We know that the risk of colon cancer increases with age, particularly for those over age 50 or over age 45 for African-Americans. The most important step you can take to prevent colon cancer is to begin getting screened at age 50. That really is the ideal age for average-risk individuals to begin screening, but if you are African American or have a family history of colon cancer, you may need to begin screening even younger than 50,” he explained. “Most colon cancers begin as benign polyps, which gives us a chance not only to detect the disease in an early stage, but also to cure it. By screening and removing polyps early, we can eliminate most colon cancers,” he added.
Lyles says there are several types of screening tests for colon cancer, including flexible sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy and testing stools for hidden blood. Newer tests are being developed all the time, and Lyles says most insurance companies in Tennessee will cover the cost of the screenings. “The test has improved greatly over the years,” Lyles said. “Colonoscopy prep used to be the thing people had the most trouble with. Formerly, you would have to drink up to four liters of fluid before the screening, whereas now, in some cases, patients only have to consume around 10 ounces. You still have to drink large volumes of liquid, but most of it now is clear liquid that you get to choose,” he explained. “Medications for the endoscopy have gotten better, as well. With medications such as Diprivan or Propofol, you have almost no pain with the procedure. Also, with these medications, you will wake up almost instantly once the I.V. drip is gone, which makes you more coherent after the procedure. I think the procedure and the techniques have gotten much safer,” Lyles added.
“Colon cancer is a big problem, but it’s not something that we can’t get better at,” he said. “It is preventable, and we can make these numbers improve. I highly recommend you speak with your primary care provider today to determine which test is right for you. Doing so can help us detect the disease at an early stage when it can be more than 90 percent curable,” he explained.
For more information about colon cancer screenings, or to schedule an appointment with Dr. Lyles, call Smoky Mountain Gastroenterology at 865-980-5060.