The facts are clear for Dr. Jay Charles Cowan: colonoscopies save lives.
A gastroenterologist at Harlem Hospital Center and an internist in the local community for 10 years, Dr. Cowan knows the value of preventive care and education.
“Education is extremely important. Our goal is to motivate people age 50 and over to be screened for colorectal cancer every 10 years. People need to be aware that there is a safe and effective screening test that can prevent colon cancer. With a colonoscopy, we can identify and eradicate an abnormal growth before it has a chance to progress to cancer.”
Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. It usually starts as an abnormal growth, known as polyp, in the colon or rectum. If caught early enough, during a regular screening, polyps can be removed and cancer prevented.
Throughout the month of March, the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC) will focus on educating the public about this life-saving procedure. Colonoscopies will be offered at all 11 HHC hospitals, and on Staten Island in partnership with Richmond University Medical Center and Staten Island University Hospital. Uninsured patients may qualify for deeply discounted rates based on family size and income.
Dr. Cowan will be one of the HHC medical experts hitting local airwaves to inform New Yorkers about the importance of timely colonoscopies. The month-long awareness campaign will also include public service announcements in English and Spanish on local radio stations, mailings to community based organizations, and citywide distribution of educational materials featuring celebrity spokespersons Ashford & Simpson, Chita Rivera, and subway hero Wesley Autrey.
Last year alone, HHC hospitals provided 20,229 colonoscopies, and removed polyps from 3,636 patients. The public hospitals have seen a significant increase in screenings since the corporation began to aggressively promote the procedure in 2003. Since then, nearly 112,000 colonoscopies have been performed, with polyps removed from 17,461 patients.
Colorectal cancer does not have any specific known risk factors. Everyone over age 50 should have a screening. Individuals with a family history of colorectal cancer are particularly encouraged to speak with their healthcare provider about an accelerated screening, as early as 35 or 40. Any significant change in frequency of bowel habits, especially constipation, diarrhea, the presence of blood in stool, or abdominal pain may also be warning signs.
Colorectal cancer affects men and women equally, yet Dr. Cowan reports a gender gap in patients seeking colonoscopies.
“Over the years, my sense has been that women are generally more motivated about seeking preventative care and taking advantage of these types of screenings,” said Dr. Cowan. “Men avoid them, or wait until they are motivated by their spouses and the women in their lives.”
“There is a great fear of the unknown,” added Dr. Cowan. “We overcome that fear by explaining the process as clearly as possible. We let patients know that, while the procedure may be mildly uncomfortable, it is also relatively quick, with most procedures completed within 20 to 30 minutes.”
New Yorkers can learn more about preventing colon cancer by visiting HHC's web site at nyc.gov/hhc.