Dr. Walter Chan and patient navigator Oscar Sanchez team up to encourage patients to get a colonoscopy.

One of the key missions of Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month is to remind people that a colonoscopy is an invaluable tool for helping to prevent colorectal cancer. So why doesn’t everyone get one?

Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) gastroenterologist Walter Chan, MD, MPH, stresses that everyone should get screened for colorectal (colon or rectal) cancer by age 50. Thereafter, patients should get a colonoscopy every 10 years, up to age of 75. Patients over the age of 75 should ask their doctor whether they should get a colonoscopy or any other colorectal cancer screening test. People with a family history of colorectal cancer should get a colonoscopy even sooner – at age 40 or earlier – and some medical experts recommend that African-Americans start screening at age 45.

Unfortunately, many people fail to follow this advice, and the impact is significant. Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer deaths in Massachusetts, but it’s believed that more than 33 percent of these cases could be prevented if everyone over the age of 50 were screened.

Dr. Chan explains that there are a number of obstacles that discourage people from getting colonoscopies. The biggest issue appears to be a lack of understanding about the procedure. In addition to not knowing how to properly prepare for a colonoscopy or having anxiety about what goes on during the procedure, people fail to realize that the primary goal of the screening is to prevent cancer.

“Using the word ‘screening’ can be misleading to some people,” says Dr. Chan. He explains that the purpose of the procedure is not simply to determine whether a patient has cancer or not. The main point of getting a colonoscopy when recommended is to look for pre-cancerous growths and, if present, to remove them to prevent cancer.

To help determine why people aren’t getting screened and then to eliminate those obstacles, our Endoscopy Center offers a patient navigator, a health care educator who helps guide patients through the entire colonoscopy process. From the time a patient is referred for a colonoscopy to the time they return home after a procedure, the navigator is available to help patients get around the challenges that discourage them from getting screened.

A recent BWH study found that patients guided by the patient navigator were 65% more likely to successfully complete a colonoscopy procedure than patients who didn’t get the navigator’s help.

This disparity demonstrates to Dr. Chan that the challenges to completing a colonoscopy typically can be overcome – and, considering the alternative, should be overcome.

Visit Open Doors to Health – Colorectal Cancer Screening Program to learn more about a BWH program dedicated to breaking down barriers to cancer screening in local underserved and at-risk communities. And to learn more about what a colonoscopy is and why it’s important, please visit www.brighamandwomens.org/colonoscopy.

– Chris P

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