Dr. Mehmet Oz just might be the last person on earth people would expect to get a colon polyp. He’s physically fit (he left me in the dust the last time we ran together), he eats a healthy diet, he doesn’t smoke, and he has no family history of colorectal cancer or colon polyps.
But several weeks ago, when Mehmet had his first screening colonoscopy at age 50, I removed a small adenomatous polyp that had the potential to turn into cancer over time. Statistically, most small polyps like his don’t become cancer. But almost all colon cancers begin as benign polyps that gradually become malignant over about 10 to 15 years.
Since there’s no way of knowing which polyps will turn bad, we take them all out. The good news is there’s plenty of opportunity to prevent cancer by removing these polyps while they are still benign. But only about 63 percent of Americans between ages 50 and 75 get screened for colorectal cancer.
Patients who smoke, eat diets high in red and processed meats, drink too much alcohol, don’t exercise, and are obese are at increased risk of colorectal cancer. So Mehmet’s healthy lifestyle may actually have protected him from having a bigger polyp — or even colorectal cancer by now.
But the bottom line is this: No matter what you do, you can’t totally eliminate your risk of developing this disease, which is expected to strike 143,000 Americans and kill over 51,000 in 2010.
About the same number of women is affected as men. And about seventy percent of patients have no family history of colorectal cancer.
The take-away message is clear: Everybody should discuss with their doctor getting screened for colon cancer by age 50 — earlier if there’s an increased risk because of factors like a family history of colon cancer, a family history of an adenomatous colon polyp before age 60, or inflammatory bowel disease.
African Americans tend to get colon cancer earlier than Caucasians and have a 50 percent greater death rate from it, so some experts recommend beginning screening at age 45 in this group.
Discuss with your doctor what test makes the most sense for you and when you should get it. Screening tests include colonoscopy, virtual colonoscopy using a CT scan, barium enema, flexible sigmoidoscopy, and various stool tests looking for invisible blood or other markers.
Ten years ago, Katie Couric’s televised colonoscopy led to a 20 percent increase in screening colonoscopies across America — a stunning rise called the “Katie Couric Effect.” Here’s hoping for a “Dr. Oz Effect.”