A “virtual” screen for colon cancer

By HSC Staff Writer • Published: September 29th, 2006
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Ask any middle-aged person what comes to mind when the word “colonoscopy” is mentioned and you’re guaranteed an unpleasant look. The routine screening for colon cancer is often dreaded by patients who consider it invasive and embarrassing.

The days of screening by conventional colonoscopy may be numbered, however, as more physicians turn to a hands-off approach called “virtual colonoscopy.”

Screenings are key to preventing colon cancer, the leading cause of cancer death among non-smoking Americans. Colon cancer is more prevalent in older people, who often develop growths… called polyps… on the linings of their intestines. Doctors recommend routine screening beginning at age fifty to find and remove potentially precancerous polyps.

During a conventional screening, doctors explore the inside of the intestines using a thin lighted tube called a colonoscope [coe-LON-uh-scope]. The scope is woven through the entire length of the colon, allowing the physician to check for abnormalities. Although patients are sedated, the procedure retains a stigma because of its invasive nature.

In contrast, virtual colonoscopy… or computed tomographic colonography uses X-rays to generate a three-dimensional computerized image of the patient’s intestines. Physicians then examine the image for irregularities.

Studies are starting to show that virtual colonoscopy is as effective as conventional screening, while eliminating the need for sedation and the risk of an invasive procedure. Moreover, the images can be saved for future reference.

If this sounds appealing, consult with your physician to see if your next screen for colon cancer can be “virtual.”