Keep Calm and Get Your Colonoscopy

Keep Calm and Get Your Colonoscopy March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. About 5% of Americans will develop colorectal cancer during their lifetimes. Cancer of the colon is usually preventable, highly treatable, and often curable. Listen to this Wellcast to learn about symptoms and risk factors for colon cancer and what you can do to help prevent it.

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Stephanie Townsend: Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt University Health and Wellness Wellcast. I am Stephanie Townsend with Vanderbilt Occupational Health. We are here to talk with Dr. Roberta Muldoon, colorectal surgeon in the Department of General Surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Thank you for talking with us today. Dr. Roberta Muldoon: You are very welcome. Stephanie Townsend: What is colon cancer? Dr. Roberta Muldoon: Colon cancer is any cancer that actually affects the large bowel, or the large intestine, and that is the lowest part of the gastrointestinal tract. One of the important things about colon cancer is it is the third leading cause of cancer, so an important one to recognize and to hopefully prevent. Stephanie Townsend: What are the symptoms of colon cancer? Dr. Roberta Muldoon: Symptoms of colon cancer actually are a little bit varied. Most people hear and think about having blood in their stool or passing some blood from their bottom. Some of the other symptoms the patients can present with also can be a change in their bowel habits, so that could be constipation or diarrhea or just even the change of shape of your stool. Some people can describe having fatigue or even weight loss, but I think the biggest thing that I want people to realize is that most colon cancers do not have any symptoms at all. So, patients that come to me say, “I couldn’t possibly have it because I don’t have any symptoms,” and it is just not true. Unless you look, you really do not know if you have it or not. Stephanie Townsend: What are the risk factors for colon cancer? Dr. Roberta Muldoon: So, I tell people that if you have a colon you have a risk factor. Colon cancer can present in anyone, and there are some people that are at increased risk of having colon cancer. So, those people certainly if you have a family history, so there is people in your family that either have colon polyps or colon cancer, that would put you at increased risk of having potentially a cancer, or if you yourself had colon polyps or colon cancer, that would put you at increased risk of even having another cancer. There are certain diseases that potentially can increase your risk also, and we do know that as we age that increases our risk. Stephanie Townsend: How can I reduce my risk and is this preventable? Dr. Roberta Muldoon: It is absolutely preventable, and the biggest way to reduce your risk is actually get screening. The screening that we recommend is to have a colonoscopy done. I know a lot of people don’t like that idea and they are a little scared of it, but it is so important and since the disease can be prevented that it makes all the difference. Colonoscopy is not really something to be scared of, and yes, there are parts of it that are not as nice. You do have to go through that bowel prep, and that is the cleanout part to make sure that your doctor when they are looking at your colon they actually can see what they are looking for. But really, there is no pain involved during the procedure. We give you medication so that you really sleep through the procedure and we can look at your whole colon. The things that we are really looking for is we want to see if there are any polyps or certainly if there is any cancer. Now, if there are polyps, we can usually get those polyps out right then during that procedure and that’s where the prevention comes in. We know that some of those polyps can turn into cancer. We don’t know which ones, but if we take out the polyps, we basically have prevented that opportunity of that polyp to turn into a cancer. The other thing is that if we can catch cancer when it is very early we have a potential then of even curing it, and it might involve having some surgery to cure the cancer, but oftentimes, we can do it, but we have to catch it early. So, colon cancer is very treatable, but the earlier we can catch it, the more likely it is that we can cure it. Stephanie Townsend: How often should you be screened? Dr. Roberta Muldoon: The screening for an average person starts at age 50, and typically, if we do not see anything in your colon, no polyps and no cancer and you don’t have a family history, we recommend to have it once every 10 years. Now, if you do have some polyps during your colonoscopy, we then shorten that interval and typically, it becomes maybe somewhere between 3 and 5 years. Also, if you have a stronger family history, we might recommend that you have that colonoscopy a little bit more frequently. Stephanie Townsend: Do you have any additional tips for our listeners? Dr. Roberta Muldoon: I think the biggest thing is really just to encourage you to get your screening done, and if you do have other questions and would like some more information about colon cancer or other colon diseases, there is a website on the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons, and the website is, and it has lot of good information and very user friendly for the patients. Stephanie Townsend Thank you, Dr. Muldoon. Dr. Roberta Muldoon: You are welcome. Stephanie Townsend: Thanks for listening. Please feel free to leave us any comments on this Wellcast on the form at the bottom of this page. If you have a story suggestion, please email it to us at or you can use the "Contact Us" page on our website at -- end of recording (05:23) --