Study Shows Colonoscopies Can Cut Colon Cancer Deaths

WASHINGTON -- For the first time, a new study shows that getting a colonoscopy does in fact cut the risk of dying from colon cancer in half.

Removing polyps found during the test can drastically decrease the risk of death, according to a study by Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

“The study basically shows that if you get a colonoscopy, your risk of dying from colon cancer is cut by 53 percent,” said Dr. Andrew Sanderson, an assistant professor of medicine and attending physician in the Division of Gastroenterology at Howard University’s College of Medicine and Howard University Hospital.

Doctors have always assumed that getting a colonoscopy had major benefits, but before this study, no research proving that the removal of polyps would improve survival existed.   Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show that deaths from colon cancer have decreased by almost 50 percent from 1960 to 2008, from 30.3 percent to 16.4 percent.
But many people choose to skip the test because of the fear attached to getting a colonoscopy.

"The biggest thing that keeps them from getting the exam done is that people are afraid of the exam itself,” Sanderson said. “They’re afraid they will have pain, but that isn’t the case for most people. Most patients are put to sleep.” During the examination, a thin, flexible tube with a tiny camera is guided through the large intestine.  Growths, known as polyps, can be cut off and checked for cancer.

Sanderson said that the test is very short and can be done between 20 to 30 minutes. The patient then has a recovery period of about half an hour.

A second study done in Europe and published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that colonoscopies do a better job in finding polyps than a common screening test that looks for blood in stool.

"The stool test helps find cancer that’s already there,” Sanderson said. “We want to promote tests that prevent the cancer. So the colonoscopy can catch the cancer before it’s there.”

Almost all insurances will cover the cost of colonoscopies and other colon cancer screenings, including Medicaid and Medicare, Sanderson said.

The D.C. Cancer Consortium spent more than a $1 million providing free colon cancer screening for District of Columbia residents who are uninsured or underinsured through a program called D.C. Screen for Life.   The screenings of more than 500 patients found that nearly one in three patients had polyps that most likely would have developed into cancer.

The screenings saved the hundreds of lives and hundreds of thousands of dollars for local hospital and the city, said YaVonne Vaughan, executive director of the D.C. Cancer Consortium.
“The study shows the investment we are making with D.C. Screen for Life is saving lives in the District and that it should be an ongoing investment to close the critical gaps in access to care in our community,” Vaughan said.

Doctors recommend that everybody should have a colonoscopy every five to 10 years after the age of 50.

And nowhere is that more true than D.C., Sanderson said.  According to CDC data, Washington has the highest death rate of colon cancer in the country.

“It’s very important that patients in this area have screenings,” he said.

Howard University will hold a free colon cancer seminar from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 7, in Freedmen’s Hall at the hospital.  Physicians will answer questions about colonoscopies and other colon cancer screening.  Some Washington residents may be eligible for free colon cancer screening.  To register or for more information, call 202.865.7741

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