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Fear among baby boomers is preventing this important cancer screening

Tracy Woolrich's picture
Colon Cancer Screening

Every year, cancer claims the lives of more than half a million Americans and is the second leading cause of death in the United States. According to the CDC one in four deaths is from cancer. Yet, a very simple screening is being skipped by many baby boomers that could save their lives.

No one likes the idea of having a colonoscopy done. The horror stories are out there and over time they get exaggerated to such a point it sounds like major surgery. In reality it is a simple, quick and easy procedure. Even the dreaded prep that used to consist of drink 2 gallons of vile tasting liquid has changed. Now often all it requires is a clear liquid diet the day before and 2 small vials of liquid laxative and possibly a suppository and you are prepped and ready. The procedure also has changed and you are not even aware of what is happening. An intravenous line is started and a small dose of quick acting anesthesia is given and you are asleep. Next thing you know you are awake and ready to go home. It truly is worth the time and effort when you consider the risk of having undiagnosed cancer that could have been easily treated in the early stages.

It is fear that is causing some to avoid screening for colorectal cancer which is the second leading cancer killer in the U.S. In 2010 alone, more than 130,000 people were diagnosed with this type of cancer and more that 53,000 die from it.

By building partnerships in the community the CDC does its part to help prevent colorectal cancer. Through the encouragement of screening, education, research and surveillance they are able to reach out into the community and make a difference.

So what is keeping seniors from having it done? Surprisingly enough it is not the fear of pain that is the reason. It is the fear of modesty and exposure. There is also the unfounded fear of getting AIDS. The fear of pain and mistrust in the medical field are also given reasons.

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If the fear of exposure and embarrassment is a key factor in CRC screening, there are things that can be done. Perhaps a certain gender doctor may help. Often women would prefer being exposed in such a manner in front of another woman than a man. Alternately a male may prefer having a female doctor due to the fear of it being too intimate with another man. Some clinics and outpatient suites offer gowns and disposable “colonoscopy shorts” that provide a level of modesty. Also some patients would prefer to not be asleep during the procedure and stay awake and aware so they have a feeling of control.

The fear of getting AIDS is totally unfounded. It apparently stems from the insertion of medical devices into the rectum can transmit the virus. Most everything used during the procedure is disposable and the parts that are not are sterilized. There is not one documented case of anyone getting AIDS, or any other disease for that matter, from the procedure.

In a study in the American Journal of Health Promotion, factors such as income, ethnicity, and psychosocial issues were investigated. The findings were based on data from phone surveys from over 450 individuals over 50 living in San Juan, New York and Baltimore. They were African American, Caucasian and Hispanic. They were specifically asked how willing they were to have colon cancer screening and what was the leading cause that would prevent them from doing it.

One finding was those who reported a general mistrust of the medical establishment were less likely than others to not get screened. This is most likely due a level of mistrust and need for vigilance and a heightened awareness. There was fear of contracting a disease during the process such as AIDS or an infection. There was also a fear of complications. Generally the individuals who feared getting cancer the lost were also the ones who also feared the screening. Through continual education and partnering with the community, perhaps a higher level of awareness and acceptance of facts can occur.

Take home message.
Colorectal cancer rates have declined greatly in the past two decades. Yet, it remains the second leading cause of cancer death in the US. Screening has the proven ability to prevent this type of cancer. However, 38 percent of adults over 50 have never had a colonoscopy. It is time to get the word out to friends and family members that are over 50 to have it done. Their lives may depend upon it.

Bynum, S. et al. (2012). Medical Self-Care/Underserved Populations Unwillingness to Participate in Colorectal Cancer Screening: Examining Fears, Attitudes, and Medical Mistrust in an Ethnically Diverse Sample of Adults 50 Years and Older. American Journal of Health Promotion, 26:295-300.