Health Matters: Colonoscopies help save lives

Emily Bubbers

Dr. Emily Bubbers is a board-certified colon and rectal surgeon at St. Peter’s Health. She performs colonoscopies and treats patients with colon and rectal cancer as part of the St. Peter’s General Surgery care team.

March 8, 2023

It seems like more than ever, news of celebrities dying from colon cancer is making headlines. Actor Chadwick Boseman, who starred in the Black Panther movie, and Kirstie Alley, who starred in the TV show Cheers, are just a few celebrities who have recently died of the disease. Fortunately, with adequate, regular screening and access to colonoscopies, we can help prevent serious illness and reduce the number of deaths from colon and rectal cancer.

Colon and rectal cancer affects people of all ages. In fact, the rate of colon and rectal cancer in people younger than 50 years old is on the rise. I have treated patients ranging in age from 21 years old to 94 years old during my 7.5 years as a surgeon in Helena.

Regular screening is key to early detection because polyps and early stage colon and rectal cancer are usually asymptomatic. Routine risk screening for colon cancer is now recommended starting at 45 years old. Based on a personal or family history of cancers, your health care provider may recommend screening for some cancers earlier or more often than generally recommended.

Colonoscopy success stories happen when patients take the time to get their recommended screening exams. In some cases, they have large precancerous polyps removed. Others have an early colon cancer detected that could have spread if they delayed their recommended screening exams.

I have a patient in their early 40s who presented for a colonoscopy due to a family history of polyps. This patient had no symptoms, but a large polyp was found in the rectum and removed. Had this person not been seen until 50 years old, this polyp would have become cancer and changed their treatment.

I have another patient who presented for a routine 10 year screening colonoscopy. They were following the national recommended guidelines for colon and rectal cancer screening and at that time a stage 1 rectal cancer was found. This person was treated and continues to go on with their life without additional treatment or evidence of recurrence.

On more than one occasion, I have had people present for their first colonoscopy around 50 years old and have found large precancerous polyps or an early stage 1 cancer that was easily manageable. Following recommendations by their primary care providers helped prevent a potentially devastating cancer diagnosis.

We also continually take care of patients who come back more often than every 10 years for colonoscopies because they are known to form polyps in their colon or have a known hereditary condition that predisposes them to colon and rectal cancer. During their colonoscopy, the polyps are removed. This prevents the polyps from growing and forming a cancer. These patients never have symptoms, but understand that a day off of work to prevent cancer is better than going through cancer treatment.

Remember, routine risk screening now starts at 45 years old and screening may be recommended to start earlier based on family history. Follow-up colonoscopies should be continued until 75 years old because a person can begin to form polyps at any age. Participating in screening is your best chance at reducing your risk for colon and rectal cancer. I encourage you to talk to your health care provider about the screening test that is right for you.