March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and each year I am reminded of the more than 20 years I spent as a surgeon performing colonoscopies. I am struck by how much medical technology has improved for colonoscopy from the procedure’s early days in the 1980s.
Both colon and rectal cancer (known together as colorectal cancer) deserve our attention, as colorectal cancer is known as one of the most common cancers. According to the American Cancer Society, it is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men and women in the United States.
It’s important to get screened now more than ever, with colorectal cancer risk increasing for every generation born since the 1950s, likely a result of increased obesity rates and the decline in the quality of our diet and exercise habits. Each year, about 150,000 Americans are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and more than 50,000 die from it.
But it’s not all bad news. We now know that colorectal cancer is highly detectable and preventable, thanks to a very effective screening method — the colonoscopy.
Colonoscopy Has Come a Long Way
It is such a powerful screening tool, and yet I am surprised at how often people decide to delay their colonoscopy or skip it altogether. Colorectal cancer screening is readily available, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that regular screening starting at age 50 would prevent 60 percent of colorectal cancer deaths.
Colonoscopies were once more daunting than they are today — patients endured longer preparation, no anesthesia, were admitted to the hospital for the procedure, and responsible for higher out-of-pocket costs. Thanks to those early days, colonoscopy got a bad rap.
Today, the procedure is much improved. Performed in an outpatient setting, a colonoscopy takes less than an hour and doesn’t cause pain or discomfort. Most people can still work the day before the procedure and start the prep the afternoon or evening prior. And many Independence Blue Cross members have $0 cost-sharing for preventive colonoscopy, but check your benefits to be sure.
The Truth About Colorectal Cancer
There are a lot of misconceptions about colorectal cancer itself, too. Let’s debunk a few of the most common myths I’ve heard over the years:
Myth: Colorectal cancer is a man’s disease.
Myth: Colorectal cancer cannot be prevented.
Truth: In many cases, colorectal cancer can be prevented. Colorectal cancer almost always starts with a small growth in the colon called a polyp. During a colonoscopy, doctors can remove any polyps they find — stopping colorectal cancer before it even starts.
Myth: African Americans are not at risk for colorectal cancer.
Truth: African-American men and women are diagnosed with and die from colorectal cancer at higher rates than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. The reason for this is not yet understood.
Myth: Age doesn’t matter when it comes to getting colorectal cancer.
Truth: More than 90 percent of all colorectal cancers are found in people who are ages 50 and older. For this reason, the American Cancer Society recommends you start getting checked at age 50. Keep in mind that some people are at a higher risk for colorectal cancer — such as those who have a family history of colon or rectal cancer — and their doctor may recommend they get screened at an earlier age. Ask your doctor when you should start getting tested and how often you should be tested.
Myth: It’s better not to get tested for colorectal cancer because it’s deadly anyway.
Truth: Colorectal cancer is often highly treatable. If it’s found and treated early (while it’s small and before it has spread), the five-year survival rate is about 90 percent. But because many people delay getting screened, only about 40 percent are diagnosed at this early stage when treatment is most likely to be successful.
Independence Blue Cross Has Pledged to Increase Screening Rates
In 2015, Independence Blue Cross pledged to help increase colorectal cancer screening rates for its members and associates through the 80% Pledge initiative led by an organization co-founded by the American Cancer Society and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We have programs designed to remind our members, as well as the network doctors who treat our members, to get a colorectal cancer screening as soon as it’s due:
- For Members — Members can sign up for IBX Wire® to receive health screening reminders, including when it’s time for a colonoscopy, securely through text message.*
- For Doctors — Primary care doctors earn incentives from Independence Blue Cross when their patients receive appropriate cancer screenings, such as for colorectal cancer, at the recommended time. Independence Blue Cross wants primary care doctors in our network to take responsibility for encouraging their patients to be screened — and on time.
*Standard message and data rates may apply. Text STOP to stop and HELP for help. Terms and conditions available at myhelpsite.net/ibx. Notification messages within IBX Wire are sent via automated SMS. Enrollment in IBX Wire is not a requirement to purchase goods and services from Independence Blue Cross. Wire is a trademark of Relay Network, LLC.
Information on this site is provided for informational purposes and is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or other medical professional. You should not use the information contained herein for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication. If you have, or suspect that you have, a medical problem, promptly contact your health care provider.