Thursday, February 19, 2009

Updated colon cancer screening guidelines

When I was an intern, we had a standard 'scut list' of tasks that no one loves but only an intern (or medical student if you were lucky enough to have one around) would do. Every admission, no matter what time they rolled through the ER door, needed a complete work-up by the time morning rounds began, and that work-up included a gram stain of that which they were coughing up if coughing was one of their presenting symptoms. This involved getting a phlegmy sample, teasing out spit from the real deal gunk within, then spreading the mess on a slide and processing it appropriately. Needless to say, it was gross.

What does that have to do with colon cancer screening? Well it's to let you know that I'm okay with digital rectal exams and testing stool samples thus obtained for blood because it's a walk in the park compared to the above. Nevertheless, I welcome the latest screening guidelines(1) from the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) that do not include rectal finger probes for those brave souls who get their every 10-year colonoscopy exams.

Colonoscopies are the best cancer screening tests we have with respect to cancers ducked (as pre-cancerous polyps are removed) or cured (tiny cancers found before they spread). That said, they're expensive, time intensive, and not without rare but serious complications. Someday we'll have a better way, but meanwhile they are still on the A list for those over 50 at average risk. On the other hand, the USPSTF says that colon CT scans are not yet ready for prime time screening purposes. More info needed, they declared, to support its routine use because thus far, this easier and less expensive scanning technique produces too many 'false positives' (looks like a polyp but not a polyp just a hunk'a stool clinging to the colon wall).

For those who cannot stomach (or perhaps cannot colon) the thought of a colonoscopy, or just plain can't afford it, the panel supports yearly high-sensitivity fecal occult blood testing (FOBT) or every 5 year sigmoidoscopy with FOBT in between. Used to be that FOBT was about equivalent creepy to sputum gram smears--requiring that the testy testee fish around in the toilet water for their 'specimen,' then to use a junior-sized popsicle stick to apply it a little card, do this three days in a row, then mail the cards off to the MD office where a testy assistant had to open the crusty old card and test it for blood. Now, the MD or patient takes darling little grooved stick from a teensy tube, gently rubs it in the residual stool on the exam glove finger or a used piece of toilet paper (if doing test at home), and reinserts stick in tube. Testing is then carried out with a treated paper strip and no further person/fecal interaction is required.

Alright, that is a wee bit gross as well, but all this colon cancer seeking is important stuff for persons of age.
1) Preventive Medicine 2009: The Annual Meeting of the American College of Preventive Medicine (ACPM). Session 30. Presented February 13, 2009.


Ruth said...

Our unit's physician did rounds yesterday and shortly after I noticed a whole line of little grooved sticks with their accompanying kits on the counter. He had ordered a number of these tests and the nurses were not impressed, lol! But they are safer and easier for some of our geriatric patients than a colonoscopy.

Mauigirl said...

Thank you for explaining how the fecal test works now. Maybe since it isn't that hard or disgusting to do my husband could even be convinced to do it. He refuses to go for a colonoscopy. (Me, I'll probably go for mine this year. It's been 9 years since the first one.)