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Reframing the Colonoscopy: The Best Colorectal Cancer Screening Tool We’ve Got

A doctor consults with her patient about an upcoming colonoscopy

If you ever mention a colonoscopy, there’s a good chance someone will make a comment about it being on par with doing your taxes or getting a root canal. And while a colonoscopy hasn’t always been the most pleasant of experiences, thankfully, it’s a different procedure than what it used to be. What hasn’t changed? It’s still the most effective tool we have to detect and treat colorectal cancer.

Colorectal cancer (colon cancer and rectal cancer) is 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. Each year, about 150,000 Americans are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and more than 50,000 die from it. What’s more, African Americans are disproportionately impacted by this disease: they are 20 percent more likely to get the disease, and 40 percent more likely to die from it.

But it’s not all bad news. We now know that colorectal cancer is highly detectable and preventable thanks to the colonoscopy. And the benefits are twofold: Not only does the colonoscopy catch cancer early, which improves prognoses, it also prevents cancer from developing with the removal of polyps.

The Colonoscopy Has Come a Long Way

Although the colonoscopy is a powerful screening tool, it’s surprising how often people decide to delay it or skip it altogether. Colorectal cancer screening is readily available, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that regular screenings 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 were responsible for higher out-of-pocket costs. Thanks to those early days, the 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 (Independence) 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:

  1. Myth: Colorectal cancer is a man’s disease.
    Colorectal cancer is almost equally common in women and men.
  1. 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.
  1. Myth: We all face an equal risk of developing colorectal cancer.
    Truth: Colorectal cancer is more common in Black people than in any other racial or ethnic group in the U.S.
  1. 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. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force updated its guidelines in May 2021 to align with those of the American Cancer Society and now recommends regular colorectal cancer screening for adults age 45 to 75. Independence members have $0 cost-sharing for colorectal cancer screening, so discuss getting screened at your next visit with your doctor. Keep in mind that some people are at a higher risk for colorectal cancer — such as Black people (who are diagnosed at a younger age) and those who have a family history of colon or rectal cancer — and their doctor may recommend they get screened at an earlier age. So, talk to your doctor about your risks, and if you’d be a candidate for earlier screening (especially if you have any of the risk factors mentioned above).
  1. Myth: It’s not worth getting tested for colorectal cancer because it’s difficult to treat anyway.
    Truth: Colorectal cancer is often very treatable. If it’s found and treated early, the five-year survival rate is about 90 percent.

Increasing Colorectal Screening Rates

As part of our commitment to increasing colorectal cancer screening rates, Independence has 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 when their patients receive appropriate cancer screenings, such as for colorectal cancer, at the recommended time. Independence 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 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.
Dr. Victor Caraballo, MD

Dr. Caraballo is Vice President of Quality Management for Independence Blue Cross. In his role, Dr. Caraballo is responsible for all activities associated with ensuring health plan compliance with the accreditation standards of the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA). Dr. Caraballo holds both an undergraduate and medical degree from Brown University and holds a Master of Business Administration degree from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He is board certified in Emergency Medicine and is a Fellow of the American College of Emergency Physicians.