Why an early colonoscopy could save your life

Last week, I told you how the mainstream is finally starting to embrace vitamin D as a key form of cancer prevention.

But for as welcome (and overdue) as this news is, it doesn’t exactly change everything in the fight against one type in particular: colon cancer.

Now, I know you may be distrustful of invasive procedures — and you know that, for the most part, I agree with you. However, due to my family history of colon cancer — as you may recall, I lost my father and two uncles to this disease — colonoscopy is one of the few tests that I do believe in. And that I urge all of my patients to at least consider.

Why? Because it could save your life — it’s as simple as that. And yes, this is one case where screening sooner is actually better.

But I’m not asking you to take my word for it. Because a new study showed that polyp and adenoma detection is twice as high when you start getting colonoscopies at age 45, rather than waiting until 50. And that’s true for patients both with and without personal and family history of polyps and colon cancer.

This study reviewed the results of more than 6,000 colonoscopies — the patients’ average age was 57, and just over half were female. Here’s the breakdown of the findings:

  • Polyps were detected at a rate of 34 percent
  • Larger polyps (bigger than 1 cm) were found at a rate of 8 percent
  • Adenomas (non-cancerous tumors) were detected at a rate of 32 percent
  • Neoplasia (abnormal growth of tissue) were detected at a rate of 3.6 percent

But here’s the juicy bit: When researchers broke down the results into five-year increments, they found that detection rates stayed low until patients hit 45. And after that, they spiked dramatically.

Among patients over 50, colonoscopy screening detected the following:

  • Polyps were found at a rate that exceeded 35 percent
  • Neoplasia was discovered at a rate that exceeded 5 percent.

Which, at age 50, is exactly what you would expect.

But for the patients aged between 45 and 49 years old, polyp detection was surprisingly high:

  • Polys were detected at a rate of 26 percent, in fact.
  • Neoplasia was found nearly 4 percent of the time.

And this is in patients without a family history.

Clearly, colorectal cancer is on the rise among younger patients. Researchers are baffled as to why — but I have a few guesses. Like… hm, let’s see… increasingly abysmal eating habits? Our love affair with carbohydrates? The chemicals in our food supply? How about chronic sleep loss and excessive stress?

Let’s not pretend there’s a shortage of factors potentially responsible for this uptick. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many causes we’re able to identify if screening guidelines aren’t adjusted to reflect this new normal.

Because the fact is, a lot of doctors live and die by official guidelines. And if those guidelines aren’t up to date, missed disease due to inadequate screening is only one of many dire consequences patients will inevitably suffer.

But that’s all well and good if you’re a pharmaceutical company that cashes in on chronic disease.

The bottom line is this: find a doctor who’s committed to screening and treating you appropriately, rather than following insufficient guidelines that favor Big Insurance over a duty to the public health. If you’re 45 and haven’t been screened, go immediately.

And I get it, some squeamishness toward the procedure is totally understandable. The good news is, there are less invasive tests out there that may eventually take its place. So even if I can’t convince you to get a colonoscopy to screen for this silent, deadly disease, I hope you’ll at least consider the alternative.

The test that I’m most familiar with is called Cologuard. It is approved by most insurance companies if you have never had a colonoscopy—and Medicare will cover it, too. But if you do have to pay for it, the cost is about $600.

That’s not cheap. But it’s a whole lot cheaper than colon cancer, in just about every imaginable way.