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Seniors, Listen Up: There's No Reason to Dodge Colon-Cancer Tests

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Oct. 24, 2001 -- "Well, Medicare doesn't cover it."

"Oh, I'm too old to worry about it."

These often-used excuses for not getting checked for colon cancer just aren't going to cut it anymore, as two new studies show most seniors really have no reason to be shunning the doctor.

Being checked for colon cancer may not be one of the most pleasant experiences -- though it's likely not to be as bad as you have imagined -- but it is absolutely crucial in order to catch this very common killer early enough so that it can be cured.

But convincing people to follow Katie Couric's lead and be aggressive about finding colon cancer is not easy. Many people are unwilling to undergo testing, even though it can take just a few minutes.

There are several ways to be tested for colon cancer -- all of which Medicare covers. The most basic test is to check the stool for blood, since tumors often cause very small amounts of bleeding. This test is usually done by preparing three stool cards at home and taking them back to your doctor. Medicare will pay for this test once a year.

Another test, called a "flexible sigmoidoscopy," can tell doctors a lot more about the health of your colon. With this test, you lie on your side in the doctor's office, and a small, flexible tube is inserted into your rectum. This test looks at only about a third of the colon, so it is not completely effective at pinpointing cancer that is in other parts of the colon.

For this reason, a sigmoidoscopy is often done with an X-ray and a barium enema. Using a dye that is inserted into the rectum, the doctor can see tumors further into the colon. Medicare will pay for these tests every four years.

Finally, colonoscopy, considered the best test by many doctors, also can be done. This test allows the doctor to see the entire colon. Colonoscopy is generally done only once every 10 years and is covered by Medicare.

Researchers found that too many seniors were unaware that Medicare paid for these tests -- a finding that could at least partially explain why so few seniors take proper care of their colon.

It's also likely that many people over 65 feel that if they've made it this far, they don't need to worry about such unpleasant things at this point -- but such a thought is not true and can lead to missed opportunities for proper treatment.

Another study shows that the frequency of colon cancer peaks at age 70 and declines afterwards but only slightly. Plus, the risk of having an aggressive cancer continued to rise with age, making screening even more important to find cancers early.

The importance of colon cancer screening has been a difficult message to get across given the perceived unpleasantness of the tests. But you could do yourself and your family a big service by taking charge of your colon care and asking your doctors about these tests.

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