Routine colonoscopy screenings cut risk of colon cancer

Team WTOP participates in the Chris4Life Scope It Out 5k. WTOP morning editor Mike Jakaitis was diagnosed with colon cancer in November 2006. A colonoscopy caught the cancer early. (WTOP/Mike Jakaitis)

WASHINGTON — It is the one medical test many people go to great lengths to avoid. But the truth of the matter is, a colonoscopy can save your life.

Just ask Mike Jakaitis.

WTOP’s morning editor was diagnosed with colon cancer in November 2006. A colonoscopy caught the cancer early, when treatment is most effective.

“If I didn’t get that colonoscopy, I would not be here right now,” Jakaitis says.

March 7 is National Colon Cancer Screening Day: the perfect time to stop making excuses and schedule that test.

In Jakaitis’ case, an early test made all the difference.

“It is all about early detection. I am one lucky person,” he says.

Colon cancer is the third most-common cancer diagnosis in the United States. If it goes undetected for too long, it can be a killer.

“We are talking about 150,000 people who will develop colon cancer this year, and 50,000 are going to die from it,” says Dr. Arnold Levy, the president and CEO of Capital Digestive Care.

Levy says a colonoscopy is the gold standard among cancer tests. It is a terrific diagnostic tool and a measure of prevention. During the procedure, doctors can detect and remove polyps — benign growths on the wall of the colon that can become a breeding ground for cancer.

Levy says insurance companies are now required to cover colonoscopies, so cost is no longer an excuse for many who put the procedure off. He says the prep for the procedure has improved dramatically in the last five years, too.

“All those things that we all worry about, I think people can dismiss,” Levy says.

When and how often one needs to get a colonoscopy depends on two factors: age and family history.

Both the federal government and the American College of Gastroenterology say most people can start routine screenings at the age of 50. The big exception is African-Americans, who have a 20 percent higher incidence of colon cancer. They should begin colonoscopies at the age of 45.

Anyone with a family history of colon cancer or colon polyps should consult a doctor — this population also may need to begin screening at a younger age.

Those considered at higher risk for colon cancer should get a colonoscopy every five years. Those whose tests are clean only need to do the screening once a decade.

National Colon Cancer is a great time to show support for the war on colon cancer by signing up to join Mike Jakaitis and Team WTOP at the annual Chris4Life Scope It Out 5k on March 23 in D.C.

For information on contributing to Scope It Out, visit the fundraising website.

Follow @WTOP and @WTOPliving on Twitter and on the WTOP Facebook page.

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