Thanks to fears of COVID-19, more than one-third of Americans skipped routine preventative screenings for cancer this year, putting them at greater risk of developing the disease.

Dr. Gouri Sreepati, board-certified gastroenterologist at Gastroenterology Associates of Southwest Florida, spoke with the Health News Network about the dangers of skipping life-saving colonoscopy screenings due to fears about the COVID-19 pandemic. One survey finds 35 percent of respondents skipped cancer screenings in 2020 due to safety concerns.

Dr. Sreepati says colon cancer normally develops from polyps, but a colonoscopy can help physicians find those abnormal growths before they turn into cancer. She believes safety protocols now in place at doctors’ offices make it safe for patients to reschedule their colonoscopies.

How Can Colonoscopy Prevent Cancer?

Cancer that forms in the colon or rectum is known as colorectal cancer. The colon is a part of your digestive system designed to break down food, absorb nutrients, and eliminate waste. The disease begins when the cells in the colon grow rapidly and form a mass. These abnormal cells often grow slowly over many years but start early as a polyp, or small growth that forms inside the colon. Colon cancer can spread to other parts of the body. Key to suffering from this terrible disease is catching it early on before it can spread.

We’ve known for decades that a simple colonoscopy is the most effective way to detect precancerous cells in the colon before they turn into a life-threatening condition.

According to Cancer.net and the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in men and women in the United States each year, with nearly 150,000 cases annually. The American Cancer Society places this number higher,

The disease is increasing in younger people, and in 2020, is expected to be the fourth most commonly diagnosed cancer in women and men aged 30 to 39.

The good news is that there is a 90% survival rate for patients who detect the disease early. A preventative treatment called a colonoscopy is the best way to detect cancers before they spread.

What is a Colonoscopy?

Since the 1980s, the volume of colorectal cases has declined, thanks to colonoscopy detection for early cancer screening and lifestyle changes such as exercising and changing your diet.

Colorectal cancer is curable if you catch it early.

“Colorectal cancer almost always develops from pre-cancerous polyps in the colon and the colonoscopy is a very simple procedure which can detect these polyps
and prevent these from turning into cancer,” says Dr. Sreepati.

A colonoscopy is a life-saving preventative test designed to detect the early stages of colorectal cancer. The procedure uses a small, flexible lighted tube called a colonoscope that is inserted into the colon to detect polyps and remove them for testing. The patient is under anesthesia and sleeps through this safe and effective preventative procedure.

The goal of colonoscopy is to detect polyps, which are small tags of tissue within the colon walls. The American Cancer Society reports polyps are common and detected in 50% of people aged 50 and up. The good news is that fewer than 10% of the polyps detected turn into a cancerous condition. Once the polyp progresses to cancer it can invade the wall of the colon or rectum and spread to the lymph nodes or to other tissues and organs.

Early stage cancers have a higher treatment success rate, so prevention techniques like the colonoscopy saves lives. The colonoscopy procedure can take prevention one step further by detecting and then removing polyps before they turn cancerous. The National Institute of Health reports the findings of studies showing there are long-term benefits to removing polyps at this early stage before cancer occurs.

What’s dangerous is that early colorectal cancer has no symptoms, which makes screening so important to your health. As the polyp grows it may block the intestine and start to spread. If you experience rectal bleeding, dark stools, cramping, pain, or a change in bowel habits, please see your doctor immediately. The timely evaluation of your symptoms is critical to your health.

What About COVID-19? Is It Safe to Schedule a Colonoscopy Now?

Dr. Sreepati encourages everyone to follow their doctor’s recommendations and schedule their colonoscopy, especially if they delayed screening due to concerns about COVID-19. “Now that all the facilities are well-equipped with how to deal with this situation, I think it’s safe for all the patients to get back to their screenings,” she says.

While patients may feel concerned about exposure to the COVID-19 virus, healthcare facilities have had the past six-months to perfect their cleaning, hygiene, and preventative procedures to protect patients and healthcare workers from the virus. Not only are the staff completely gowned and masked for your protection, the clinical facilities and equipment used are thoroughly disinfected and sanitized. Social distancing is always observed for patients, and each is screened with temperature checks when they arrive.

The American Cancer Society recommends colonoscopy screening should begin at age 45 for people with an average risk profile and continue through age 75 in 10-year increments. The guideline also recommends that higher risk patients receive this screening before age 45. This includes patients with a strong family history of colorectal cancer or a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis. See your doctor to determine what the recommended guidelines are for your individual care.

Early detection of colorectal cancer can save your life. Gastroenterology Associates of S.W. Florida is committed to providing the best in patient care and caring. Talk with our team today and get your colonoscopy scheduled now to take care of your health.

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