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New Ways to Diagnose Colon Cancer

New advances in colonoscopy promise faster and easier screenings.

The Virtual Test

While looking towards the future is promising, there is also one futuristic method of colon screening that is available right now. It's called a "Virtual Colonoscopy" -- a noninvasive screening that uses X-ray beams to look inside the colon.

Doctors say there is so little fuss and bother, the whole procedure is over in less than 10 minutes.

"For the most part, when a patient leaves here they are pleased and happy. They are on and off the table in no time, and there is no sedation. You can literally go back to work in 10 minutes," says Michael Macari, director of abdominal imaging at NYU Medical Center in New York City.

Besides the fact that the screening is noninvasive, Marcari says that prior to the test his center also uses carbon dioxide -- compared with "room air" -- to extend the colon. The difference, he says, means very little cramping and almost no residual pain after the screening is completed.

"Initially there is a little pressure but the carbon dioxide gets absorbed so fast, by the time they leave they feel fine," says Macari.

Looking to the Future

While the screening itself may be fast and easy, right now it requires the same preparation as the regular colonoscopy, so patients are not spared the pretesting discomfort.

However, Macari reports that may change in the not-too-distant future, with the advent of a process called "fecal tagging."

In this procedure, he says, patients drink an agent which -- once inside the colon -- latches onto the fecal material and helps doctors differentiate between that and polyps on the scan.

"We just completed study of 80 patients using fecal tagging and no bowel cleansing and we had a very high rate of detection of polyps over 10 millimeters, which many believe is the real threshold for removal," says Macari.

In another study published in the journal Radiology doctors from Belgium compared fecal tagging with standard colonoscopy preparation. They found that fecal tagging left behind more fecal residue, but improved differentiation of polyps. The fecal tagging also dramatically reduced patient discomfort, side effects, and sleep disturbances.

Still, Marcari says he would not routinely recommend it for virtual colonoscopy -- at least not until larger studies are done.

"Right now it's used if a patient simply cannot tolerate the standard prep, or if a medical condition precludes them from participating in the standard prep," says Macaria.

As easy as a virtual colonoscopy appears to be, Brooks cautions that should a polyp be found during the exam, the patient must still undergo a standard colonoscopy to have the growth removed.

"This requires a second prep and a second procedure whereby if you have the standard colonoscopy screening and something is found, it can be removed on the spot without the need for a second procedure," he says.

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