Colon-Cancer Screenings Save Lives


March was “Colon Cancer Awareness Month” to help raise awareness of the importance of screening to help prevent one of the most common cancers in both men and women.

Are you due for a screening? Colon cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in men and women. It affects 150,000 Americans a year and about a third end up dying from it, albeit needlessly. Screening can help detect colon cancer at an early stage, when it can be treated successfully or prevented. Yet, sadly, one in three people who should be screened fail to do so, according to the American Cancer Society.

“There’s a certain ‘ick factor’ when it comes to colorectal cancer tests,” acknowledges Fola May, MD, PhD., director, UCLA Melvin and Bren Simon Gastroenterology Quality Improvement Program. “That may explain why a third of the target group delays or refuses screening.”

A colonoscopy, in which a gastroenterologist examines the colon with an endoscope, remains the gold standard for screening. During this painless, outpatient procedure, the physician can view colon tissue to detect signs of cancer and remove any precancerous polyps.

For patients who prefer not to have a colonoscopy, UCLA medical offices offer the fecal immunochemical test or FIT. Patients can use the FIT kit at home to collect a stool sample that is then placed in a mailer to the UCLA lab, where it will be analyzed for signs of cancer. Although the test is less invasive than a colonoscopy, it does have some limitations.

“You’re not removing polyps, Dr. May explains, “so the test cannot prevent cancer unless patients with abnormal results return for colonoscopies.”

For years, the prevailing wisdom was that colon cancer only affected people over age 50. But experts are seeing an uptick of younger people getting the disease. The reasons are not entirely clear.

“We are seeing a slight uptick in colon cancer among younger people,” says Dr. May, “and it’s something we are closely monitoring. Those under age 50 with symptoms concerning for colon cancer also need to be evaluated.”

So, who should get screened? UCLA Health recommends the following guidelines for colon-cancer screening:

  • Individuals over 50 years old
  • African-Americans age 45, due to the higher risk of colon and rectal cancers
  • Those with a family history; Age 40 or earlier. Discuss with your primary care physician