March is Colon Cancer Screening Awareness Month

Important diagnostic tool should be on your mind year-round

A blue ribbon is shown for colorectal cancer awareness. Colon Cancer Screening Awareness month may be drawing to an end, but colon cancer screening is an important diagnostic tool that patients should be aware of all year long.

MARQUETTE — Colon Cancer Screening Awareness month may be drawing to an end, but it’s an important diagnostic tool patients should be aware of all year long.

“Standard advice to patients is that everybody needs colon cancer screening at age 50, or potentially sooner based on certain characteristics,” said Dr. Jonathon Schwake, a gastroenterologist at UP Health System. “With their primary care provider, patients should discuss the appropriateness of screening for them.” He added, “Colon cancer is one of the few forms of cancer that we can actual prevent through screening, or at very least detect early while it is still quite treatable.”

For healthy, asymptomatic individuals, initial colon cancer screening is recommended at age 50, Dr. Schwake said. But some risk factors need to be considered.

“If the family has a history of colon cancer or colon polyps in a first degree relative or in some cases more extended relatives, then screening may be important earlier,” Dr. Schwake said. “And there may be genetic conditions in a family that increase the risk factor.

“Other conditions involving the gastrointestinal tract such as inflammatory bowel disease may indicate the need for earlier or more frequent screening,” he explained.

And although screening is typically initiated at age 50, screening tests should be repeated until at least age 75.

“People need to understand that colon cancer screening won’t stop at 50, that’s when it starts,” Dr. Schwake said. “The frequency of screening will depend on the findings from the first screening and on risk factors for the patient, but is generally an interval between 3-10 years.”

Some people hesitate to have colon cancer screening because of the preparation for a colonoscopy.

“There’s still no magical way to complete this prep. It’s onerous and it’s something most patients are most wary of, but it’s also one of the most important steps in detection of polyps and preventing cancer,” Dr. Schwake said. “From my standpoint, proper prep gives the best results. It is crucial to providing an adequate exam.”

People who have had trouble with colonoscopy preparation in the past should speak with their primary care provider about any concern.

“There are some prep options and your doctor may be able to give you advice or recommend a medication to help,” he said. “Please don’t forego screening because the prep is difficult. Treatment for colon cancer is far worse.”

“It’s important to understand colonoscopy is still the first-line form of screening,” Dr. Schwake said. It enables the doctor to remove precancerous polyps from the colon.

A newer alternative screening method has been around for about five years, Dr. Schwake said, and that’s Cologuard.

“Cologuard is sensitive for detection of blood in the stool and to DNA molecules associated with advanced polyps and early colon cancer,” he said. “It’s an at-home test. The person collects a small stool sample and sends it in for testing. But people need to be aware that there are a number of conditions in which Cologuard is not recommended, and it should not be used if concerning symptoms are present.”

Dr. Schwake said that in those who have a positive test with Cologuard, a diagnostic colonoscopy will then be recommended.

“The primary care provider is the best resource to assess the patient’s condition and what’s the best screening option for them,” Dr. Schwake said.

Dr. Schwake’s office can be reached at 906-449-3680.

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