Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. That's according to the CDC. But it's highly treatable if it's caught early. That's the message doctors hope to get out year round, but especially in March, during colon cancer awareness month.
The good news is the death rate has been dropping, thanks in a big way to screenings known as colonoscopies. Mississippi has one of the higher colon cancer rates in the country and one of the lowest screening rates.
Fifty-five year old Ferell Alman wants to do his part, to help turn those numbers around. He knows the importance of regular colon cancer screenings and wants to share his knowledge with South Mississippi.
His father had colon cancer, and thanks to early detection he survived. But because of his family history, Alman has already had three colonoscopies.
"I wanted to get started early because of what my dad went through. So I had one at 48, 50, and 55 because it's no joking matter," Alman said. "I take it seriously and I don't wanna take a chance."
A colonoscopy is a test that allows your doctor to look at the inner lining of your large intestine to search for cancer or pre-cancerous growths, known as polyps.
"The key here is we can detect polyps and remove them before they become cancer," Gastroenterologist Dr. Peter Bernheim said. "And also often detect cancer earlier, when it's much more treatable with better outcomes."
Dr. Bernheim said the screenings are a lifesaver.
"If you look at the top cancers in the country, colon cancer is the one that's preventable."
Doctors found polyps in one of Alman's three screenings and removed them for biopsies. Because he follows recommended screening guidelines, they were removed early, before they turned into cancer.
So who should have a colonoscopy?
"Unless you're high risk, everyone should start getting them at age 50. And for African Americans, it's recommended they start at age 45," Dr. Bernheim said.
Those with a family history should have them earlier.
Bernheim says too many people put off the screenings, or wait too long in between screenings. That's when they run into trouble.
"We diagnosed about 140,000 cases of colon cancer and that resulted in 50,000 deaths in this country, and at least 90 percent of those would've been preventable with the simple test."
That's why Alman stays on top of his screening schedule and encourages others to do the same.
"Here's an analogy I like to use: When you turn 50, what if you were given one car for the rest of your life? You'd maintain it, take care of it, get the oil changed. Well, you've only got one body and one colon. So you need to have it checked. Because the alternative is, it's not going to last."