ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Stephen Brown discovered he had advanced colorectal cancer at age 58 when he had his first routine colonoscopy in 2012.
“I tell everybody, you need to get screened,” said Brown, a U.S. Army veteran. “I don’t understand this, but some of them tell me they would rather die than get a colonoscopy.”
Sadly, colorectal cancer each year kills about 52,000 people in the U.S., and most of those cases could have been prevented by a routine colonoscopy – a test that allows a doctor to inspect the colon and rectum using a thin, flexible tube that is equipped with a camera.
Brown sat near the entrance of a giant walk-through colon Tuesday at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque, which sponsored an event called “Strollin’ the Colon” to raise public awareness about colorectal cancer and prevention. Brown told anyone willing to listen that the colonoscopy screening saved his life, even though he did lose a portion of his colon.
“I had no pain,” Brown said of the cancer that threatened to kill him. “I had no warning signs.”
Brown’s experience is typical, said Dorine Conley, health systems manager for the American Cancer Society. Colorectal cancer begins with small growths called polyps that grow on the wall of the colon, or large intestine, that can turn into cancer.
“We don’t feel them,” Conley said of polyps. “We don’t even know they’re there.”
Colonoscopy, the front-line screening procedure for colorectal cancer, is recommended for everyone beginning at age 50. People with risk factors, such as a family history of colorectal cancer or polyps, should begin screening at a younger age, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Colonoscopy is more than simply a diagnostic procedure, Conley said. If doctors find polyps, they can remove them during the procedure, eliminating a potential cause of cancer, she said.
Colonoscopy “is a cure,” she said. “It’s a way to prevent cancer by getting those polyps out.”