March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month and University of Iowa professor Robert Summers says thanks to lots of publicity, we all know what we should do to prevent the disease. Colon Cancer’s all too common, he says, and it can be prevented — if the doctors find and remove the abnormality he calls “the precursor of cancer,” in most cases that is a cure. The professor of gastroenterology says with a simple exam, your doctor can spot the abnormality that can mean a very early stage of what will become cancer. That abnormality, a colon polyp, is a grape-like growth and if it’s found early enough, before there are other symptoms, it’s likely it can be removed and the early cancer cured with therapy. Celebrities like TV personality Katie Couric have led the drive to publicize the disease and its prevention. Many insurance policies won’t cover the test, which can be costly, but Dr. Summers says that is changing. In the age range most often hit by this cancer, the older population, exams now are covered by Medicare and Medicaid, and he says increasingly private health-insurance policies will also cover the test. He says if a policy won’t cover the test, consumers should push for it — because it’s literally a life-saver. Colonoscopy to detect the disease is so effective, that waiting instead for symptoms like bleeding or pain means you’ve waited too long. The doctor says “That’s almost always too late,” as the cancer’s much more advanced, treatment is more expensive and the success rate is much lower. The test can be embarrassing, but Dr. Summers says with the example of celebrities going in for it, more people accept that it’s something they should do. Among other techniques being tested are some less awkward and invasive — though they’re less effective. “Virtual colonoscopy,” or “CT Colonography” are being evaluated at the University of Iowa. He says they’re developing those techniques to be incorporated into the armament of screening options, and think they’ll make the idea of screening acceptable to more people. And there are other ways to try and detect early cancer, like blood tests, but Summers says they are not very effective at all. A blood test for cancer, or checking for altered DNA or blood in stools also can provide results, but he says while they can be used to screen these tests miss many more cases and are not as reliable. He says the best exam for screening will probably always be a colonoscopy, which lets an expert do a visual examination of the lower intestine to spot the early warning signs of the disease.
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