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'Do something': Early detection is key in fight against colon cancer

The message of National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month in March was simple: cancer screening saves lives. When the time comes to get checked, patients have a few options to choose from.

"The most well-known is colonoscopy," said Dr. Matt Deppe, a board certified general surgeon at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing. The test has the greatest sensitivity and also produces the fewest false positives.

Colonoscopy is typically recommended because of the accuracy and low rate of complications, but it is not suitable for some patients because they are too ill or otherwise unable to tolerate the preparation. Alternative screening methods include stool tests and abdominal imaging with a CT scan.

"Do something, any one of the screening tests," Deppe said, noting early detection can prevent cancer or allow it to be removed with minimal surgery.

What is unique about colonoscopies compared to other screening methods is that the flexible tube used to perform the procedure also can be used to remove polyps, clumps of cells that form on the colon lining and can later become cancerous.

"We're screening for polyps, not colon cancer," Deppe said. "We want to find polyps and remove them in order to prevent colon cancer."

Preparing for a colonoscopy begins the day before with a laxative to empty the colon. This important step is to prevent residue from obscuring the doctor's view during the test.

"Just getting the exam done and having a terrible preparation does not help you," Deppe said. "If we can't see, we can't do our job."

The procedure takes around 20 minutes, followed by a trip to a recovery area for the sedation to wear off — though some people choose to forego medication entirely, Deppe added.

When to test

Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among men and women combined in the U.S., according to the Colon Cancer Alliance, but the five-year survival rate when it is caught before spreading beyond the colon or rectum is 90 percent.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening for adults age 50 to 75, while adults age 76 to 85 should consult with their doctor. People with family history of colon cancer, an inflammatory bowel disease or certain genetic syndromes may need to be tested earlier.

There are far fewer late-stage colorectal cancer diagnosis made locally than there has been in the past, Deppe said, which he credits to early screening.

There were 1,400 colonoscopies performed at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing in 2016, according to a spokeswoman.

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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