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Sound Health is a recurring series that airs twice each month on WGLT's Sound Ideas program.Support for Sound Health comes from Carle Health, bringing care, coverage, support, healthcare research and education to central Illinois and beyond.

Sound Health: Why Colon Cancer Screenings Should Start At Age 45

cancer cells.jpg
This microscope image from the National Cancer Institute Center for Cancer Research shows human colon cancer cells with the nuclei stained red. Americans should start getting screened for colon cancer at age 45, according to new guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

A Bloomington-Normal doctor says an earlier start to routine colon cancer screenings will save lives.

Dr. Omar Khokhar is one of many clinicians who has seen more and more cancer and pre-cancerous lesions in younger patients. Khokhar, a gastroenterologist with OSF HealthCare, said he supports an influential panel’s recent recommendation that routine screening for colon cancer should begin at age 45 instead of 50.

In this installment of Sound Health, Khokhar said the death of actor Chadwick Boseman of colon cancer, at age 43, brought more attention to the issue.

Dr. Omar Khokar
Dr. Omar Khokhar

“It validated clinicians’ experiences, because we all have that 35-year-old patient with colon cancer. I think that story got people’s attention,” Khokhar said. “It’s like, ‘Hold on a second here. If it can happen to Black Panther, I should think about this.’”

The new recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, published in May in the journal JAMA, finalizes a change that the task force proposed in October. The recommendation is in line with the advice of the American Cancer Society and other groups.

Colon cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. As for how common it is, here’s how Khokhar puts it: Out of 100 people in McLean County, four will get colon cancer.

Experts are not yet sure why it’s happening more often in younger people. Theories include an increased amount of processed food and sedentary lifestyles, Khokhar said.

“Unfortunately for internal gastrointestinal cancers, it’s really important to be screened because you don’t really know it until you’re symptomatic,” Khokhar said.

Colonoscopies are the most common cancer prevention strategy. Stool tests are considered a cancer detection strategy. Neither are much fun – but both get the job done.

The goal is to detect pre-cancerous lesions before it’s too late.

“Whatever test a person is willing to do is the best test,” Khokhar said. “And if they’re positive, that’s ‘Do not pass go, do not collect $200, straight to colonoscopy.’”

If you get a colonoscopy at age 45, for example, and you get the all-clear with no other risk factors, you don’t need another one until age 55.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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