March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. The bad news is that colorectal cancer is the second leading cancer killer of both men and women. The good news is that with regular screening tests, colorectal cancer is preventable.

A colonoscopy remains the gold standard for detecting colorectal polyps and colon cancer. A polyp is an abnormal growth of tissue in the intestine. Some types of polyps will turn into cancer if left untreated, but it takes about 10 years for this to happen. This means that a colonoscopy has a good chance of finding polyps before they turn into cancer.

At Southwestern Vermont Medical Center (SVMC), our rate of detecting colorectal polyps that are pre-cancerous (also called adenomas) is above the national rate.

Dr. Ronald Mensh
Dr. Ronald Mensh (unknown)
Research done at large academic medical centers provides a national guideline of about 25 percent for detecting adenomas. The adenoma detection rate for the physicians at SVMC is about 50 percent.

This means that about half of the patients (4,400 in the past two years) who come to SVMC for a colonoscopy are found to have a pre-cancerous lesion. Once a polyp is found, it can be removed, often right away. A colonoscopy may not be your favorite way to spend your morning or afternoon, but there is a great chance that this screening could save your life.

My patients ask me about alternatives to colonoscopy, such as a CT colonography, or "virtual colonoscopy." This screening tool has several flaws as a detection method for colorectal cancer. It is not approved by any gastrointestinal-related professional society. The method is not as accurate as colonoscopy - and that means pre-cancerous polyps or cancer can go undetected. As a result, insurance companies will not pay for this exam. There are several preparation methods now available to get you ready for a colonoscopy. Your doctor will work with you to pick the best preparation method for you. He will consider your health and current medications, as well as your age and comfort level to determine what preparation method will be the safest for you to use.

At SVMC, we have the latest equipment to use during colonoscopies and a great nursing team that works alongside the doctors. Our equipment monitors are in high definition, allowing us to see more and to see it more clearly. Our nurses are highly-trained and experienced. This is a factor that has been proved to influence a higher detection rate of polyps and cancer.

All of these factors mean we have a greater chance of finding any abnormalities in your colon or rectum. And that means we have a greater chance of preventing you from getting colorectal cancer.

For most people, a colonoscopy is recommended every 10 years, beginning at the age of 50. Others are at higher risk for getting colorectal cancer, and for them, their doctor may recommend a colonoscopy every five years. Risk factors include a family history of colon polyps or colon cancer, being overweight, and having inflammatory bowel disease. Your primary care doctor can advise you on your personal schedule for having a colonoscopy. Colorectal cancer is a deadly disease. It is also preventable. Talk to your doctor today about having your colonoscopy.

Dr. Ronald Mensh is a gastroenterologist with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Putnam Physicians and care for patients at SVMC Gastroenterology in Bennington. "Health Matters" is a weekly column from Southwestern Vermont Health Care (SVHC) meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care. To learn more about SVHC, visit svhealthcare.org or our Facebook page.