March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month, so doctors are reminding those at risk to get a colonoscopy.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. The CDC also says if everyone 50 and older was screened regularly, 60 percent of colon cancer deaths could be avoided.
Dr. Michael Lemon is a general surgeon at East Falls Primary Care and Specialty Clinic in Idaho Falls. He said colon cancer doesn't get the attention breast and lung cancer gets.
"It's very common to find colon cancer in its very early stages," said Lemon. "In fact, a majority of colon cancer is found at the polyp stage, which we can treat with just a simple colonoscopy."
Symptoms of colorectal cancer are rectal bleeding, weight loss and abdominal pain. However, symptoms are uncommon, which is why colorectal cancer is called the "silent killer."
"If somebody avoids getting their colonoscopy or screening test, we may not find it until it's already advanced and spread to the liver, brain or bones," said Lemon.
So, at age 50, it is recommended that both men and women get a colonoscopy to check for polyps - or abnormal growths. Lemon said polyps usually take 10 years to develop into cancer.
"If your colonoscopy is clean, you're free until age 60," said Lemon. "You don't have to have another one for 10 years."
However, some people put the procedure off, because of the invasiveness. Endoscopy nurse Kerry Mangum said people are very apprehensive, but when the procedure is over, many are relieved.
"Most of the time people say, 'Wow, that wasn't bad at all,'" said Mangum.
Lemon said the worst part is the day before when pills and liquids cleanse the colon. The colon needs to be completely cleared so even the smallest polyp can be seen.
"Patients are sedated, it's very comfortable, they recover very well from it, and it's an outpatient procedure," said Lemon.
Family history is an important factor when scheduling the first colonoscopy.
"For instance, if somebody gets colon cancer at age 40, family members should start colonoscopies at age 30," said Lemon.
Lemon also said the high-fat, American diet contributes to poor colon health. He said adding high-fiber fruits and vegetables can help, but he encourages patients to use fiber supplements to balance the digestive system.
"It's difficult to all of a sudden introduce a lot of fiber into your diet, which is why we talk about adding a fiber supplement twice a day," said Lemon.