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Amy Umble is health reporter for The Free Lance-Star

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Imagine a day with no colon cancer

Dr. Waring Trible

Dr. Waring Trible said this week that he can imagine a day in the not-too-distant future when a medical student  picks up a gastroenterology textbook and reads, “Colon cancer is a very rare cause of cancer death in America.”

That would be a remarkable change from today, when colon cancer is the nation’s second leading cause of cancer death, responsible for more than 51,000 deaths a year. But Trible said it’s possible.

He likens the change to what’s happened to cervical cancer. Because of the Pap test, cervical cancer has become relatively rare, responsible for 4,210 deaths last year. The same thing could happen to colon cancer, he said.

Trible is optimistic because of the declining numbers. According to the American Cancer Society, the incidence rate for colon cancer has been declining since 1985. The colon cancer death rate has declined an average of 1.8 percent a year for more than two decades.

The reason: “Because of increases in the use of colorectal cancer screening tests that allow the detection and removal of colorectal polyps before they progress to cancer,” according to the ACS.

“We are making a big difference by doing these screenings,” said Trible, who is a Fredericksburg gastroenterologist and was guest speaker earlier this week at a colon cancer forum at the Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center.

The best of the screenings is the colonoscopy, Trible said. He’s done thousands of them, he said, using a flexible, lighted tube to see “every square inch, looking around corners, behind folds” from the rectum to the cecum.

If he spots a polyp, he snares it for later examination in the lab. By removing the polyp, “we’ve reset the clock,” Trible said. That polyp will never become a cancer, he said, and any new polyps will take years to develop.

He recommended that most people get their first colonoscopy by age 50, then repeat the procedure every 5 to 10 years, depending on the findings. “With good screening and people paying attention, colon cancer can almost always, 90 to 95 percent of the time, be prevented,” he said.

(For more on colon cancer, and all other types of cancers, check out the American Cancer Society’s annual Cancer Facts and Figures report here.)