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Colon Cancer Screening

Jay Monahan and Ethel Blum are not household names, but the superstars championing their memory are: Katie Couric and Judge Judy both have lost loved ones to colon cancer. Thanks to their efforts, the screening tests which could save your life have become well known: sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy. But what's the difference?

Colon cancer usually begins with tiny growths called polyps in the lining of the rectum or colon. Most polyps remain benign, but some become cancerous over 5 to 15 years. Sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy are recommended to evaluate these growths. A sigmoidoscopy is a thin, lit tube inserted through the rectum into the lower part of the colon which allows doctors to look for abnormalities on a video monitor. This procedure is less thorough than a colonoscopy which is longer and allows doctors to view the entire colon, or large intestine. During a colonoscopy, polyps may also be removed. Light anesthesia is also usually given for a colonoscopy whereas it is not necessary for a sigmoidoscopy.

Ask your doctor when you should be screened. The American Cancer Society recommends yearly rectal exams plus flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years or colonoscopy every 10 years for men and women over 50. For those with a strong family history of colorectal cancer, screening tests should be started 10 years earlier.

Created: 3/1/2004  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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