If your family has a history of colon cancer, you need a colonoscopy now

by Dr. William J. Harb, M.D.

published in the Tennessean, July, 2008


The death of another well-known person from colon cancer, former White House Press Secretary and Fox News correspondent Tony Snow, should once again bring colon cancer to the forefront.  He joins the unfortunate ranks of well-known people who have had colorectal cancer (Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and actor John Forsythe) or who have died from colorectal cancer (actors Walter Matthau and Jackie Gleason, football coach Vince Lombardi, artist and creator of Peanuts Charles Schultz, and comedian Milton Berle to name a few).


Are you like Tony Snow? Or me?  Have you had someone in your family with colon cancer?


Snow was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 49.  His mother died from colon cancer at age 38, when he was 17.  We know things now about colon cancer that we didn’t know when Snow’s mother died 36 years ago.  And, he is not alone in having a family history of colon cancer.  This year, approximately 150,000 Americans will be diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer and ¼ of them will have had someone in their family with colorectal cancer


You may be aware of the recommendations for screening colonoscopy for the prevention of colon and rectal cancer.  Colon cancer can be prevented through the removal (by colonoscopy) of pre-cancerous growth, called polyps.  In people without a family history, colonoscopy should begin at age 50.


However, this is not the same for people with a family member who has had colon or rectal cancer. People with a family history of colorectal cancer are at higher risk for colorectal cancer and should have colonoscopy done at an earlier age. In most people, this is age 40 or 10 years before the age of diagnosis of their family member.  For Snow, this would have been age 28, since his mother was diagnosed at age 38.


Common myths prevent many from having their colonoscopy.  The truth is colon cancer can be prevented.  And it can be prevented with an exam that takes less than an hour.  Colorectal cancer that is diagnosed early can be cured.  But one of the main reasons people are not checked for colorectal cancer is lack of awareness.  That’s why I’m writing this today.


If you have a family history of colorectal cancer, like both Tony Snow and me, please get your colonoscopy.  As a colon and rectal surgeon, I treat patients daily with colorectal cancer.  I also have a family history of colon cancer.  My grandfather and uncle died from it and my grandmother was diagnosed with it.  If my uncle, who knew his father had colon cancer, had his colonoscopy at the appropriate age, maybe he wouldn’t have died from colon cancer at age 52.

Know your family history and talk with your primary care physician about it.  Ask your physician to schedule a screening colonoscopy.  Please help me put an end to this terrible disease.


Dr. William J. Harb is a colorectal surgeon at Baptist Hospital and practices with Cumberland Surgical Associates.


Copyright The Tennessean July, 2008

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