When Will and Julie Sencabaugh of Lebanon, Connecticut learned recently that it was time to book their first colonoscopy to screen for cancer, they didn’t give it a second thought.
“I turned 50 last year and my doctor told me that when you turn 50 you need to have a colonoscopy. So, I usually do what my doctor tells me to and made an appointment with Baystate Gastroenterology and my colonoscopy was scheduled just before Christmas,” said Will, a pastor at the First Congregational Church in Lebanon.
“I turned 50 as well and my doctor told me the same thing, and I listened,” said Julie.
Follow your doctor's orders
But not everybody listens. According to statistics, only about 50 percent of people follow their doctor’s orders to get a colonoscopy.
During a colonoscopy, a doctor, usually a gastroenterologist, uses a flexible camera to visually examine the colon for polyps, tumors or other abnormal growths that could result in colorectal cancer. While the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that adults age 50 to 75 be screened, the American Cancer Society has lowered that age to 45 for those considered at average risk.
For example, you are considered at average risk if you do not have a personal history of colorectal cancer or certain types of polyps, a family history of colorectal cancer, or a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. Yet millions of people in the United States are not getting screened as recommended.
“Plain and simple – colonoscopy screenings save lives. It’s important to remember to get screened at the appropriate age unless you have a family history. So many people haven’t been screened because their primary care physician never ordered a colonoscopy for them. It is important that we educate the public how critical it is to get screened at the appropriate age, so as to catch any cancer early when it is most treatable,” said Dr. Ira Schmelkin, chief of gastroenterology at Baystate Medical Center.
Don't be afraid
Many people are afraid of undergoing a colonoscopy because of its invasive nature and the prep the night before, which involves a clear liquid diet and taking a series of laxatives to completely empty out your bowel. Others are simply afraid of learning the results.
“There was no apprehension, no worry for us. To me getting a colonoscopy is just something you have to do like getting a driver’s license. And if something is found, then it is better to find out sooner than later,” said Will.
Emphasis on “sooner” for Julie, who had several precancerous polyps removed and who will need a follow-up colonoscopy in December.
“Before the test I didn’t think there was any history of colon cancer in my family, but I did learn afterwards that my father had several polyps, too, but that they weren’t cancerous,” said Julie, who works at Frontier Regional High School in South Deerfield.
A clean bill of health
As for Will, he got a clean bill of health. "They told me I have the perfect colon,” he laughed.
This year, 145,600 new cases of colorectal cancer are expected to be diagnosed. Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in men and women and the second most common cause of cancer deaths in men and women combined. Each year there are over 50,000 deaths from the disease.
Screening can save your life
“I don’t know why, especially when you know that a colonoscopy can save your life, someone wouldn’t want to have the procedure done. In my situation, I have total peace of mind knowing I am healthy with no polyps and that I won’t need another screening for 10 years. Even if the results weren’t what you were hoping for, as in my wife’s case, all the more reason to have it done,” said Will.
If cancer is found, Dr. Kelly Tyler, chief of colorectal surgery at Baystate Medical Center, noted surgery for colon cancer is much more manageable than one might imagine.
“People often have a fear of the unknown and a fear of having to endure invasive procedures and treatments for colon cancer. Because of major advances in technology, we can often offer patients surgery for colon and rectal cancer with minimally invasive techniques which allow for smaller incisions and improved recovery. Even patients who may require more extensive surgery are experiencing improved outcomes and survival from colon cancer with adequate medical and surgical treatment.
Our surgeons recognize the importance of sphincter-sparing treatments that allow most colorectal cancer patients to heal after surgery with the ability to pass bowel movements naturally without an ostomy bag,” said Dr. Tyler.
A personal message
Knowing what they both do now, the Sencabaughs – who only recently moved to Lebanon after living for years in Deerfield – have a joint message to further encourage everyone to get screened when it’s their time.
“I think for us, and what we want to convey to everyone, is that just by looking at us, you really wouldn't know who had the good colon and who had the bad colon. No one really knows until they get the test done. It's a simple procedure, and a little prep work is nothing when knowing the results can help to save your life,” said the couple.
To make an appointment
For more information, or to schedule an appointment for a colonoscopy, talk to your primary care provider.