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Maintaining your colon health during the pandemic

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By Dr. Joseph Casey, Plymouth General Surgery

Dr. Joseph Casey, Plymouth General Surgery

When people ask me about putting off their colonoscopy due to the pandemic, I always have the same advice – DON’T.

Even if you’ve never had a colonoscopy, you have most likely heard about it. The laxative “prep” drink the day before the procedure probably got your attention. Most people agree that the prep is the worst part. The actual colonoscopy involves sedation and a few hours at the hospital. While that may not sound enticing, there is a good reason why doctors recommend that both men and women have this exam done, with or without symptoms.

Colorectal (colon and rectal) cancer is the third most common cause of cancer-related death for both men and women. However, if caught early, it has a 90% survival rate

Symptoms of colorectal cancer include a change in bowel habits (often constipation), blood in your stool, a feeling that your bowel isn’t emptying, and persistent cramps or gas. Symptoms can also include weight loss, pencil-thin stools, weakness, and fatigue. However, by the time you experience symptoms, the cancer is usually quite advanced.

Most colorectal cancers develop from polyps, which can have no symptoms at first. If we don’t catch these polyps and small cancers early and remove them, you may need more aggressive treatment such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. If a cancer goes untreated for too long, it can be difficult to treat even with those options.

A colonoscopy is a screening test that helps identify if you have colorectal cancer. It also allows your doctor to diagnose and treat small growths or polyps and even early-stage colon or rectal cancer. By finding and removing colon polyps before they become cancer, doctors can prevent their later development into cancer.

The American Cancer Society and the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons now recommend that most people start having colorectal (colon cancer) screenings at age 45. This is particularly important because a growing number of people under the age of 50 are being diagnosed with and dying from colorectal cancer. They often have no symptoms, or if they do, they may dismiss them as hemorrhoids or constipation, which is why it’s important to get a screening even if your symptoms are mild.

Doctors may recommend colonoscopies at an earlier age or more frequently if a person has risk factors like a family history of colorectal cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, or some genetic syndromes. The good news is that you only need to do this test once every 10 years unless your doctor finds any polyps the first time. Then you might need to have your second colonoscopy within 3 to 5 years.

But the pandemic has raised concerns about routine preventive care. Is it okay to skip screenings like a colonoscopy while COVID-19 is still spreading?

Delaying your colonoscopy can be a matter of life or death. A recent study published in The Lancet Oncology identified that delays in colonoscopy screenings since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020 have resulted in a 15-16% increase in colorectal cancer deaths.

The American Cancer Society has reported that colorectal cancer deaths have been dropping in both men and women for several decades. My fear is that all the gains we have made will start reversing, with colon cancers being caught later at less treatable stages. I’m very worried about what we’ll be seeing over the next couple of years because of people’s reluctance to go in for screenings.

It is understandable that people are anxious about seeing their physicians or going to healthcare facilities amid the pandemic.

With so much attention focused on COVID-19, it’s easy to forget about health screenings you would have normally scheduled by now. The good news is that with screening, in many cases, you can prevent or detect problems early so that treatment is more effective. 

Preventive measures such as mammograms, Pap tests, colonoscopies, and other tests and screenings are essential to good health

And, just as important: If you are experiencing any symptoms or signs of illness, don’t wait. Call your healthcare providers and let them help.

At Speare Memorial Hospital, our added safety measures include screening and testing for COVID-19, wearing masks, practicing physical distancing, changing processes to minimize contact, and taking additional cleaning and disinfection measures. We also test patients for COVID-19 in advance of procedures and surgeries. This helps ensure that those who are COVID-positive and don’t show any symptoms do not come into our care facilities.

Scans, exams, and procedures need to be done in person. But for consultations, discussion of your test results, general health questions, and follow-up appointments, a video visit might be a good option. Ask your health care provider if their practice is set up for telemedicine.

Be sure to maintain your health during this pandemic. Talk to your doctor about what screenings are best for you, and follow those recommendations, especially if you’re living with a condition that puts you more at risk for certain diseases.

Speare Memorial Hospital and our physician practices are here to help keep you safe and healthy in these challenging times.

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