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SANDY — Despite being the third-most common form of cancer and second-leading cause of death from cancer, colon cancer is one of the most preventable forms of the disease.
Intermountain Health is focusing on colon cancer throughout the month of March, toting a giant inflatable colon to many of its facilities to educate staff, patients and the public about the importance of colonoscopies.
The inflatable colon is 12 feet long and weighs 113 pounds. Monday was its 10th stop, at Alta View Hospital, and the colon will continue moving to different locations in Utah and Idaho as part of Intermountain’s awareness campaign. It displays portions of a healthy colon, polyps or bumps on the colon, malignant polyps which look more vascular and have more redness, cancerous cells, advanced cancer cells and Crohn’s disease.
The massive inflatable, affectionately named “Collin the Colon,” is on loan from Boston Scientific, a medical device manufacturer.
Dr. Austin Cannon, a colon and rectal surgeon at Intermountain Medical Center, said his patients don’t always have a history of colon cancer in their families, and are healthy — so they don’t expect any issues would be found. As long as the cancer is caught early, he said, it is very treatable.
Colonoscopies can be portrayed as a “terrible ordeal” but, Cannon said, it is important to normalize the conversation about colonoscopies.
“Colon cancer can happen to anybody, and it’s important to get screened,” he said.
Cannon said he encourages patients to come in more often for colonoscopies and to tell their family members at a higher risk for colon cancer to get a colonoscopy, too. For anyone with a first-degree relative with colon cancer, Cannon said, a colonoscopy is the only test they should use because it is better at identifying polyps that can often be taken out immediately, reducing the risk of colon cancer.
Nickole Gardner, nurse manager in the endoscopy department at Alta View Hospital, said she hopes people are looking for signs of colon cancer and getting regular and timely colonoscopies — at age 45, or earlier for people with a family history of colon cancer.
She said health professionals would rather find cancer at the polyps stage, but it takes a colonoscopy to determine it’s there. The time for polyps to progress towards cancer is different for everyone, which is why the next appointment after a person’s first colonoscopy will vary.
The age doctors recommend a first colonoscopy was recently modified from 50 to 45. Gardner said doctors are finding colon cancer in younger and younger patients, and are estimating the average age range for diagnoses will move even lower before 2030.
“We’re just finding more and more (younger people) having colon cancer so come in, get screened for sure,” she said.
Gardner said some people hesitate to come in because preparing for the procedure is not ideal for most people, and the idea of being put to sleep and having the procedure also scares some. But she urges people not to ignore signs and symptoms like rectal bleeding, change in bowel habits, abdominal pain and unintentional weight loss.
Lifestyle choices can help to reduce risk for colon cancer, as well, she said, including abstaining from smoking, maintaining a healthy weight and exercising routinely.
With the recommended screening age being lowered, and with many delayed procedures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are more people than ever who should be getting colonoscopies. Intermountain is working to be prepared for the increase, and has set up a streamlined process to schedule people for the procedure more quickly.
Lori Smit, clinical operations director for endoscopy at Intermountain Health, said after people fill out a form online, they will be contacted within a day or two to schedule the procedure. She said the system is “patient-centric” and will work with a patient’s schedule. People likely will not be able to work right after the procedure because they have been sedated, but they generally should be able to return to work the next day, Smit said.
Seven hospitals and 17 physicians are connected through the central scheduling program, making the procedure available to more Utahns.
“It really does give patients options to select from, and really it is about the patient and their choice,” Smit said.
Intermountain began using the system in March last year, and the first procedures happened in May. Through the program, patients are able to get the procedure in an average of 35 days. Smit said, typically, there is a three- to six-month wait time, so this shows their program is very successful.
“Get it in, get it done — it’s just not a big deal and it saves lives,” she said.