how to overcome screening fears

How to Overcome Colonoscopy Fears

You exercise, you eat right, you visit the dentist and gynecologist at the exact recommended intervals, and every year you have your dermatologist scan your body for any errant moles, so what are you missing?

Make cancer screenings part of your to-do list

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month – a good reminder to make one doctor’s appointment you may be avoiding. According to the Centers for Disease Control, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, but with the proper screening tests it doesn’t have to be.

Let’s face it, getting a colorectal exam is at the bottom of most of our “to-do” lists.

“There is no question that the fear of the unknown, the embarrassment of an examination, and the common myth of the pain associated with the treatment of rectal problems deters many patients from seeking help,” says Eytan A. Irwin, MD, FACS, FASCRS, Virtua chief of the department of colon and rectal surgery.

If you’re age 50 or older, though, it’s time to start regular screenings – a safeguard that could prevent 60 percent of all colorectal cancer deaths.

Correct colorectal health misconceptions

Colorectal health is about much more than cancer. Other common conditions such as constipation, diverticulitis, and hemorrhoids can be diagnosed or treated with the proper exams. More common in women are other colorectal issues such as irritable bowel syndrome, fecal soiling, and anal leakage, says Dr. Irwin.

“There are a number of misconceptions out there, one is that women sometimes feel that this is a man’s problem, and that’s clearly not true,” says Dr. Irwin, who notes that colorectal cancer and other health issues affect the genders almost equally.

He points to lifestyle elements such as diet, smoking, exercise, alcohol, and obesity – as well as the unavoidable factors of gender, family health history, and age – as potential risk factors for colon and rectal health problems, and stresses the importance of screenings.

“There is a misconception that a lack of a family history of colon cancer is a free pass to avoid colonoscopy,” says Dr. Irwin. “In fact, 75 percent of colorectal cancer arises sporadically, meaning no known family history. A known family history of colorectal cancer only accounts for 20 percent of newly diagnosed cases.” 

Schedule your screenings

If you’re not sure if you need a colorectal screening, Dr. Irwin recommends going in at age 50 for the average individual, but age 40 or sooner if you have family history of colorectal cancer, a personal history of polyps or another form of cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, change in bowel habits, blood in stool, or weight loss.

If you’ve never had a screening, have experienced any potential problems, or believe you are at high risk of colorectal problems, Dr. Irwin explains that screenings and treatments have come a long way.

“The previous lack of good options for the treatment of fecal soiling and incontinence, as well as the reluctance to discuss this very delicate issue, kept many women suffering in silence and severely affected their lifestyle,” he says. “Although the incidence of polyps and cancers is slightly higher in men than women, both are significantly affected.”

Take action to stay healthy

If you’re healthy now and want to do what you can to avoid your risk of developing colon and rectal health issues, Dr. Irwin recommends eating a healthy diet that’s low in fat and high in fiber, avoiding smoking, exercising regularly, drinking alcohol in moderation, and, of course, regular screenings.

Don’t ignore warning signs that you may have a problem. “Seek a specialist for even the most embarrassing problems,” says Irwin. “New treatment options may significantly diminish embarrassment and improve quality of life.” 

Updated June 6, 2016