Op-ed: A test that could save your life

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JOSHUA S. ARON, MD

The word cancer is scary, unsettling and leaves people feeling helpless. Add colon cancer and the stakes intensify. According to the American Cancer Society, colon cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Here in New York City the disease kills approximately 1,400 people every year.

As a gastroenterologist for the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC), I can tell you that colon cancer is highly curable if caught early. It’s also one of the few cancers for which an effective screening – a colonoscopy – is available. But not enough people are getting screened. Many people are unaware of their risks for colon cancer; some have specific concerns or fears about colonoscopy or screening tests, and others are afraid of the results of such tests. Education and an open discussion with your doctor is the best form of protection from colon cancer.

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and HHC is urging anyone approaching or over age 50 to make sure their next stop is a colonoscopy. A common procedure, a colonoscopy, can identify precancerous growths called polyps in your colon and remove them before they turn into cancer. Colonoscopies are recommended for adults at least every 10 years, and those with a family history of the disease should ask their doctor about getting screened earlier and more often. While colonoscopies are the gold standard to identify and remove colon polyps before they become cancerous, there are other colon cancer screening tests available.  Ask your doctor which is best for you. Keep in mind symptoms of colon cancer don’t always present themselves. The majority of polyps, and in the several cases even cancers, do not cause any symptoms at all. If symptoms do appear, they may include constant abdominal pain, blood in the stool and a change in bowel habits and fatigue from anemia.

There are simple health tips everyone can follow to minimize their risk of colon cancer:

  • Get screened for colon cancer
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Know your family history
  • Eat a balanced diet high in fiber and leafy green vegetables
  • Limit alcohol consumption and don’t smoke
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about colon cancer

Colonoscopies are available at all 11 NYC public hospitals regardless of ability to pay. New Yorkers who want more information about preventing colon cancer should call 311 or visit nyc.gov/hhc.

Joshua S. Aron, MD is a gastroenterologist at Elmhurst Hospital Center

 

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