Aging adults must focus on colorectal cancer risk

A few years ago, I wrote a column about the importance of getting enough fiber in your diet. I included the benefits of doing so, citing relevant research. I mentioned "constipation" as something to be avoided and appropriate fiber intake as one of the avenues to doing so.

A week later I received a handwritten letter from a reader. I remember it well; I probably still have it somewhere. The letter chastised me for choosing such an "indelicate" topic to write about. At the risk of being seen as indelicate once again, I am going to talk about the importance of having a colonoscopy.

This topic is on the minds of local public health officials and health care providers because March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Your health provider may have already indicated you were due for colorectal screening. Maybe even overdue?

Think about this. It's a readily available, highly effective screening that's covered by Medicare; it's a simple and painless procedure. Most people who have them are amazed at the lack of discomfort involved and totally relieved when they hear an "all clear" result — in part because they know that it's a procedure they do not have to have again soon. My health provider believes it should be every seven years.

It's critically important for aging adults because it's the route to ensuring the prevention and early treatment of colorectal cancer, which is "cancer of the colon and rectum." For the record, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Caught in its early stages, it is highly curable (

Colorectal screening is not going to be the high point of anyone's day. But it's a few moments of possibly awkward embarrassment that may save your life. Anyone remember when television host Katie Couric had her colonoscopy on television in front of millions of viewers in an effort to raise awareness about a cancer that had claimed her husband and left her a widow with two young children?

That took "real guts," as a friend of mine put it at the time. But watching that televised procedure convinced me to make the appointment for my first screening — and I am due for one again.

Most of us are aware we should be screened when we turn 50 "… earlier if we have a family history or a previous cancer diagnosis. But apparently we put it off, because public health experts say colorectal cancer screenings lag far behind screenings for other cancers.

We can change that. Here's the plan. This week, focus on eating a low-fat diet with lots of high-fiber fruit and vegetables. Make sure you have some exercise each day. Before the week is over, call your health provider and ask whether you need to schedule a "colorectal screening." (Someone must have decided that was a better term to use than "colonoscopy.")

Ask about this in whatever way you choose. I'll be right behind you.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at 541-261-2037 or

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