Simple exam can prevent colon cancer

By BRYN STOLE, Staff Writer

Doctors at the Greenwood Leflore Hospital are trying to get the word out this week about an examination that could go a long way towards preventing colon cancer.

A colonoscopy, though it may sound intimidating, is a relatively simple procedure and “a great way to prevent colon cancer,” said Jennifer Liberto, nurse manager in the hospital’s endoscopy unit and a registered nurse herself.

“It’s a great idea,” Liberto said. “It’s an easy step to make sure you’re healthy and cancer-free.”

Doctors recommend a colonoscopy for those 50 or older, or for African Americans aged 45 or older, due to significantly higher colon cancer rates among blacks.

Dr. George V. Smith, a board certified surgeon who is one of the two physicians who perform the procedures at the hospital, said colon cancer is one of the most deadly forms of cancer, with more than 1,500 new cases diagnosed every year in Mississippi.

It’s also, Smith said, often preventable.

“Six out of every 10 colon cancer deaths could’ve been prevented with a screening,” Smith said.

Smith said insurance companies usually cover the cost of the procedure once every five or 10 years, though he personally recommended more frequent screenings, especially if a patient has a family history of colon cancer.

The most important thing, though, is to not put off having a screening — especially if you’re experiencing symptoms, which include weight loss, abdominal pain, blood in stool or a change in bowel habits.

“There are some people that will be 64 and getting their first colonoscopy and have cancer,” Liberto said. “You just think, ‘Gosh, if you had come in when you were 50, you probably would’ve just had a polyp and we could’ve taken in out.’”

If discovered early, polyps and small tumors can be removed relatively easily, said Dr. Douglas Bowden, an osteopathic surgeon at the hospital. Usually they can be removed as part of a minor outpatient procedure, with low risks of complications. Often, it’s only when left untreated that the cancer grows to the point of requiring major surgery, chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

“When we find those types of polyps, you would come in more often,” Liberto said. “That way it would never get to the Stage Three or Stage Four where you have the major treatments.”

A colonoscopy itself is actually a simple screening which takes, at a maximum, four hours. It involves inserting a flexible probe to check the colon, and is usually performed under mild sedative, though Liberto said stronger anesthesia is available.

As for a colonoscopy’s unpleasant reputation, Liberto said the scope is usually painless and most patients don’t even realize the procedure is over.

“The day before is the hardest part,” Liberto said. Preparations include dieting and taking medication “to flush them out, in the nicest of terms.”

Still, that’s a small price to pay for your health.