Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S. each year (excluding skin cancers), according to the American Cancer Society. Unlike gender-specific forms of cancer, such as breast and prostate, it is an equal opportunity offender that affects men and women at nearly the same rate.

Like other forms of cancer, though, colorectal cancer is highly treatable in its early stages. In fact, it can even be prevented with a virtually painless procedure that is fully covered by most insurance plans: a colonoscopy. Many who should have this potentially life-saving screening opt to delay or forgo it.

Finding and fighting cancer

A colonoscopy is the gold standard for detecting and preventing colorectal cancer by finding and removing troubled tissue called polyps, which can potentially become cancerous. Twenty percent of adults develop polyps. Polyps cannot be felt and they do not cause symptoms; the only way to detect them is to check for them.

While there are other tests that can detect changes in the lining of the colon, such as a stool test, they cannot remove polyps. If one of these tests shows an abnormal result, a colonoscopy is almost certainly the next step.

Better than the old days

Many patients opt against having a screening colonoscopy because of inconvenience. Others perhaps have a memory of a parent being uncomfortable with the procedure’s preparation or aftermath, but a lot has changed over the past two decades.

Small volume liquid preps are now available and generally not distasteful. Also, technological advances and the use of video chip and computer technology have made the procedure less inconvenient. Normally, a colonoscopy only takes about 20 to 30 minutes and is performed under sedation, so it’s like taking a short nap.

When to start

A screening colonoscopy is recommended beginning at age 50. However, those with a family history of colorectal cancer should start 10 years before the age when their relative was first diagnosed. African Americans also have a higher incidence of the disease, so they should consider a colonoscopy at age 45. Individuals with a history of other colorectal disease should consult their physician for a recommended screening schedule.

Some patients believe that eating a healthy diet prevents polyps. While a healthy diet is always good for your health, there is no evidence that it prevents polyps. In fact, the medical community is unsure of what causes polyps or how to prevent them. The medical community agrees, though, that a colonoscopy is the most effective way to get rid of them.

John T. Fletcher, MD, is a board-certified gastroenterologist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Surgical Hospital at Sherman.