After celebrity death to colon cancer, Utah doctor weighs in on colonoscopy

Dec 8, 2022, 7:00 AM
A Utah doctor says Americans should not avoid a preventative test for colon cancer, despite a recen...
Film and TV star Kirstie Alley was diagnosed with colon cancer not long before she died this week. A Utah doctor discusses the why testing for colon cancer is important. (American Cancer Society/Getty Images)
(American Cancer Society/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY — Despite recent questions about the efficacy of testing for colorectal cancer, one Utah doctor says — don’t skip the colonoscopy.

Colon cancer was in the news this week because Kirstie Alley, an American actress best known for her roles in the ‘Cheers’ TV sitcom, and the ‘Look Who’s Talking’ films, died of colorectal cancer.

Alley was 71 years old and was only recently diagnosed with colon cancer according to her children.

In October, researchers published a study of nearly 85,000 men and women from Poland, Norway, and Sweden. Researchers divided the group into two — one contained people who accepted an invitation to have a colonoscopy. The other group was made up of people that were invited to receive a test for colon cancer but did not.

Ten years later, the groups were screened again and the researchers determined that the group who had the screening did see a small reduction in their chances of dying from colon cancer. But the researchers also said that the number of people that saw a reduction was negligible.

The results led to questions about whether screening for colon cancer is worth the cost and inconvenience.

Mark Lewis is a medical oncologist and director of gastrointestinal oncology at Intermountain Healthcare. He said there are some important distinctions about the study that should be considered when discussing the new research.

Lewis said the study in question was performed in northern Europe, where “their populations are different than ours (in the United States), both in terms of colon cancer risk and in terms of ethnic diversity.”

For example, according to the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, in Poland approximately 0.002% of the population is Black. And less than 1% of the Norwegian population is of African descent. 

According to the National Library of Medicine, those Americans who have the highest incidence and mortality rates of colorectal cancer are Black Americans.

Those are important distinctions for Dr. Lewis. 

“We know that, here in the U.S., certain ethnicities are at higher risk for early onset colon cancer, including African Americans and Native Americans,” Lewis said.

“That makes the generalizability of a northern European study to the [United] States a little difficult.”

In 2021, the American Cancer Society began recommending that Americans begin colorectal screening at age 45 instead of at age 50 as they had previously recommended. But even that wasn’t enough for some people in Utah, which boasts the youngest demographics in the nation.

“About one in eight of patients in my practice with colon cancer did not have the opportunity to get screened because they were too young,” Lewis told KSL NewsRadio. Currently, most insurance companies will offer preventative screening beginning at age 45.

For Lewis there is no question – undergo a preventative colonoscopy beginning at the age of 45.

Other reading: FDA approves first treatment to delay onset of type 1 diabetes

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After celebrity death to colon cancer, Utah doctor weighs in on colonoscopy