The rates of colon cancer among older patients have dropped significantly over the past two decades thanks to screening protocols like colonoscopy. Now there’s concern among experts that younger patients are not getting the screenings they need.
The current recommendations for average risk men and women is to get screened every 10 years starting at age 50. African Americans seem to develop colon polyps and cancers earlier and are recommended to begin screen at age 45. Some patients with a family history of colon cancer or inflammatory bowel disease may need to get screened earlier as well.
While current guidelines, again, are for colon cancer screening to begin at age 50, due to recent studies showing a small but important increase in younger patients diagnosed with the disease, The American Cancer Society has recommend screenings for all patients starting at 45.
Andrew Bedford, MD, a Northeast Medical Group gastroenterologist affiliated with Bridgeport Hospital and Yale School of Medicine, said he thinks 45 is the right age to begin screening.
“Recent studies show that younger patients seem to be incrementally increased in the rates of colon cancer to the point where the population between the ages of 45 and 50 may have just as much risk as the population over the age of 50,” Dr. Bedford said. “Medicare and private insurers are grappling with this issue now and patients should check with their plans to see if coverage for early screening colonoscopy is in place."
The death of actor Chadwick Boseman at 43 to colon cancer put a spotlight on the disease. Dr. Bedford said unfortunately, Boseman’s case is not an isolated incident.
“When we see these young patients, they tend to have more aggressive disease and may not have reached recommended age for screening exams," Dr. Bedford said.
It is a reminder that if, at any age, problems such as a change in bowel function, abdominal pain, blood in the stool, or anemia develop, it is important to consult a physician. While there are several screening options, a colonoscopy is the most effective at detecting and removing pre-cancerous polyps.
During a colonoscopy, the patient is completely sedated and feels no pain. Most patients say the hardest part of the process is the preparation the day before, which includes a clear liquid diet and laxatives. Other patients may feel uneasy about having a procedure of any kind done. But Dr. Bedford said a colonoscopy should be seen as an investment in your health.
“I like to tell our patients that colonoscopy with removal of polyps is a way of vaccinating yourself against colon cancer,” he said.
For those concerned about the spread of COVID-19, Dr. Bedford said that shouldn’t stop patients from getting the health screenings they need. There are strict protocols in place at all Yale New Haven Health facilities that make outpatient procedures, like colonoscopy, a safe and worthwhile experience.
Learn more about colon cancer screenings and find a doctor near you