New test is out for colon cancer

FAIRMONT – If you are over 50, there’s an excellent chance that your physician has recommended you have a colonoscopy. There’s also an excellent chance that you totally ignored that advice, but you might want to rethink that decision.

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a subject nobody wants to talk about, but colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in men and women. About 135,000 colorectal cancer cases are diagnosed each year in the United States, and it claims about 50,000 lives annually.

Like many other illnesses and cancers, it is often treatable with early diagnosis.

“One in 20 people will have colon cancer. The great thing is, we can easily screen for it,” said Dr. Tim Slama, family medical physician at Mayo Clinic Health System in Fairmont.

“It’s very important to check for colon cancer. The test most people are aware of is the colonoscopy, but now we’re coming out with more tests. Mayo Clinic invented a test called Cologuard. When I was in medical school 10 years ago, they were starting to talk about this, but it takes a long time to get FDA approval.”

You might have seen television commercials for Cologuard featuring a talking box that comes to your home and leaves via a parcel truck.

“It’s a stool DNA test. They mail it to your house. It actually checks the DNA for genetic markers for cancer, all in your own home,” Slama said. “It’s an excellent test if you don’t want to go through a colonoscopy.”

Cologuard tests are good for three years while colonoscopies are recommended every 10 years.

More and more insurance companies are covering Cologuard testing, and Slama said some patients are opting to pay themselves if their insurance does not cover the test.

“Medicare and Medicaid have now picked it up just this year,” he said, recommending that people interested in the Cologuard test should check their coverage with their insurance provider.

The test is available by prescription only and is recommended for patients with a low risk of colorectal cancer.

The chance of colorectal cancer increases with age which is why physicians start recommending screenings like colonoscopies for patients over 50, but younger people also are at risk for the disease. Earlier screenings are recommended for patients with a family history of the disease or a chronic condition like Crohn’s disease. The odds for the cancer increase with a sedentary lifestyle, cigarette smoking, alcohol use, obesity and a diet high in fat and processed meat.

Symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, weight loss, feeling weak or tired or a change in bowel movements.

“It’s going to start out as a polyp, grow and get bigger, turn into cancer and spread, but the No. 1 thing is preventive screening,” Slama said. “A colonoscopy is still the most accurate and versatile screening because if you have those polyps, we can get them all out in the one procedure.”

The best advice Slama says he gives to his patients is to stop it before it starts.

“I see 20 people a day so that means one person a day that I see could have colon cancer,” he said. “I have to be very vigilant each day talking to patients about the symptoms, talking about the screening options. Nobody likes to talk about colonoscopies, but that’s something we have got to bring up.”

“The Cologuard option has been practice changing. It’s an excellent option for people who are dead set against colonoscopies. We still recommend colonoscopies because it’s the most accurate and versatile test. If you have polyps, the colonoscopy can get them out in one procedure.”

The non-invasive Cologuard test is not better than a colonoscopy, he said, but it offers a different type of test that could significantly boost the number of people who undergo the cancer screening.

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