Using Colonoscopies to Save Lives

By Lauren Wanko

Moments before her colonoscopy, Abby Blassangill talks to her doctor about the procedure. She’s 66 and has pushed this back for years, until now.

“My primary doctor kept giving me prescriptions but I was a little scared about it,” she said.

“A colonoscopy is a test to screen for polyps which develop into colon cancer. To put it simply, a colonoscopy is a scope called a colonoscope,” said Dr. Shamina Dhillon, a gastroenterologist at Jersey Shore University Medical Center.

It’s a long, flexible tube that has a camera on the end of it. While the patient’s sedated, usually sleeping, the doctor inserts the scope into the colon, which is anywhere from three to five feet long.

“I have these dials here which allow me to move the scope either left or to the right,” Dr. Dhillon said.

The video’s projected on a screen. During the 30-minute procedure, Dr. Dhillon is looking for polyps.

“A polyp is a growth. This is a collection of cells which over time can turn into cancer so during a colonoscopy, my goal is to remove this growth so that it does not become a cancer in the patient’s body,” Dr. Dhillon said.

Dr. Dhillon says a colonoscopy’s the only test that can remove a polyp.

“This is the tool called the snare that allows us to take the polyp out,” she said.

The polyp tissue is sent to the lab for testing.

“The key that I really want patients to understand is when you get your pathology report, when you speak to your doctor about what kind of polyp you had, you want to ask them if it’s an adenoma. The adenoma polyps is what has cancer potential,” Dr. Dhillon said.

“Colon cancers the majority of the time will start off with an abnormal polyp that grows and enlarges and changes in configuration and can become a colon cancer,” explained Dr. Glenn S. Parker, a colorectal surgeon at Jersey Shore University Medical Center.

Dr. Parker says some risk factors include genetics, environment and lifestyle issues like smoking, obesity and lack of exercise.

“The survival rate for colon cancer is potentially excellent, meaning greater than 90 percent,” he said.

If patients are diagnosed early.

“The major issue with colon cancer is there may be no symptoms,” Dr. Parker said.

“This is why this is still the third most leading cancer and the second cause of cancer deaths in patients. This year we’re expecting about 90,000 plus people to actually get diagnosed with colon cancer in the U.S. Up to 50,000 deaths a year,” said Dhillon

If someone is diagnosed with colon cancer, they’ll get an abdominal and pelvic CAT scan followed by a chest X-ray. The next step is surgery. A patient would sit down with their doctor to discuss options — there’s lots of them — including minimally invasive robotic surgery.

But Dr. Dhillon hopes it never gets to that point for patients. Those with no family history should get a colonoscopy at 50 years old and one every 10 years after that. Patients with polyps may be retested in three to five years.

Blassangill’s message to those with doubts: “It is not the bad at all. Get out there and get it. It is very important.”

Click here for a Colon Cancer Awareness Day event at Ocean Medical Center, happening March 10.