The New England Journal of Medicine last month released a study proving that colonoscopies can save lives.
That was long believed true, but the study, for the first time, offers proof: Colonoscopies cut the death rate from colorectal cancer by 53 percent.
"That (study) ought to be an eye-opener for a lot of people," said Dr. Allen Campbell, a surgeon with Sanford Bemidji Medical Center.
Those who are not high-risk for colon cancer are recommended to undergo a colonoscopy once a decade after turning 50 years old.
Dr. Mark Claussen, also a Sanford Bemidji surgeon, has for years been recommending that action to his patients. So, when he turned 50 this past fall, he booked his own colonoscopy.
"I figured if I'm telling my patients to do this, I should do it too," he said.
Meanwhile, Campbell himself was due for a second colonoscopy, so he scheduled one for himself as well.
Both underwent their surgeries earlier this year. Campbell performed Claussen's surgery and Claussen performed Campbell's surgery.
Even though neither was high-risk, each surgeon found a polyp in the other man's right colon. Both were removed on the spot during the initial colonoscopy.
"I was looking right at it so I took it right out," Campbell said.
Colon cancer is the third-most-common cancer in both men and women and the second-most-common cancer killer after lung cancer. It causes 50,000 U.S. deaths a year.
"For a cancer that should be the most preventable," Claussen said.
Since each surgeons' colonoscopies revealed a polyp, they now will each undergo another colonoscopy in five years rather than the 10 years recommended for the average person.
"I do tell my patients that I've had it done, that it's nothing to be afraid of," Claussen said.
Most polyps are noncancerous, but one in 10 does turn into cancer, they noted. About 90 percent of all colon cancers start with a polyp. Symptoms generally do not appear when a polyp develops.
"If you wait until you see symptoms, you most likely will be in late-stage (colon cancer)," Claussen said. "One screening could literally save your life."
Minnesotans have a 60 percent compliance rate for undergoing colonoscopies along the recommended timelines, Claussen said.
"There's really no reason for it not to be 100 percent," Claussen said. "But I do think it's getting to be more accepted."
But, still, Campbell noted, he has seen 70-year-old men who come in to undergo their first colonoscopy.
"It's a gamble," he said.
A colonoscopy takes about 20 minutes and is much more easily done than in the past.
Surgeons at Sanford Bemidji now do all colonoscopies with IV sedation, so the patient can breathe on his or her own but does not remember anything from the surgery.
Claussen noted that colonoscopies in the past were much more uncomfortable, which occasionally may be why a patient is reluctant to have the screening done.
"It's just not like that anymore," Claussen said.
There are certain high-risk patients for which the recommended schedule is expedited. American Indians and African-Americans are more likely to develop polyps, so they are recommended to begin screenings at 45 years of age. Also, those who have a family history of developing polyps are recommended to begin screenings before the age of 50.
Additionally, if a close family member was ever diagnosed with colon cancer, the patient is recommended to begin colonoscopies 10 years before the family member's age when he or she was diagnosed. For instance, if a dad was 47 when he was diagnosed with colon cancer, his son should begin screenings at 37.
One in five people will, at some point, develop a polyp. Once removed, the polyp is sent to a pathologist for examination. Hyperplastic polyps are noncancerous. Adenomatous polyps could be cancerous.
All six of the surgeons at Sanford Bemidji perform colonoscopies. Claussen said he does between 400 and 500 a year and Campbell said he performed around 350 last year.
"We're really proud of the way we do it here in our same-day surgery center and at the hospital," Claussen said. "Our staff really makes it comfortable for you ... we do it right and we do it well."