At Wonneberger family gatherings, the question on everyone’s lips isn’t
"How have you been?" It’s …
"Have You Been Screened?"
Regular Screenings Prevent Colon Cancer
If you don’t like the idea of colon screenings (and who does?), and
you think the benefits aren’t worth the discomfort, there’s a
family we’d like you to meet: siblings Bob and John Wonneberger and
Lissa Wonneberger Kowalski, whose family history makes them perfect poster
people for the importance of regular colon screenings.
On the Wonneberger family tree, going back three generations, almost every
family member has had colon cancer or polyps.
Meet Bob: He’s Never Had a Symptom
or a Problem
started having colonoscopies in 1990 at age 30," says Bob Wonneberger,
a lawyer living in Milford.
"Thirty is a very young age to start colonoscopies," says Bob.
"The American Cancer Society recommends that people without a family
history start at age 50."
"But with my family history, I wasn’t taking any chances,"
Bob explains. "I’ve been so lucky—my screenings have never
revealed any problems. I only need to have a colonoscopy every five years."
Colonoscopy is a procedure in which a slim, flexible tube
with a tiny camera (the "scope") is passed through the rectum and
up into the colon—the large intestine. The camera provides images of
the inside of the entire colon, right up to the small intestine, so a gastroenterologist
(a physician specializing in diseases of the digestive tract) or a surgeon
can see any problems.
Sigmoidoscopy is a somewhat less invasive procedure. It examines only the
lower third of the colon, and can be done in the doctor’s office.
Meet John: His Colonoscopies Have Prevented Colon Cancer
started colonoscopies at age 26," says Bob’s brother John, age
40. And it’s a good thing, because John has inherited the family tendency.
Some of his colonoscopies have revealed precancerous polyps.
"Polyps are growths, like little raspberries, on the inside wall of the
large intestine," says the Wonnebergers’ gastroenterologist, Bridgeport
Hospital–affiliated Howard Taubin, MD. "They may bleed, which can
be detected by a Fecal Occult Blood Test (see box). Left untreated, some types
of polyps can become cancerous. In fact, that’s how colon cancer gets
its start. But if polyps are caught early, they can easily be removed during
the colonoscopy by snaring them with a wire loop passed through the scope."
Polyps rarely grow back—but new polyps can occur. That’s why
John Wonneberger has his colonoscopies every three to four years. It takes
more than three years for a polyp to become cancerous, so he’s confident
that his regular screenings will keep him cancer-free.
Meet Lissa: Her Very First Colonoscopy Saved her Life
Wonneberger Kowalski, age 38, has been more seriously affected than her brothers.
At age 24, a Fecal Occult Blood Test (see box) showed blood in her stool just
before Christmas. "Dr. Taubin did my very first colonoscopy that December
27," she says. "On January 1, I was in Bridgeport Hospital, having
part of my colon removed." The colonoscopy had revealed cancer.
"I was lucky—it was in a very early stage. I didn’t have
to have chemotherapy—the surgery removed the cancer. Now I have colonoscopy
every three years—and there have been no more problems!" Lissa
"You know, colonoscopy isn’t so bad these days," says John
Wonneberger. He remembers that years ago, his preparation was much more involved,
and he was more awake and aware during the procedure. "Back then, I’d
be uncomfortable afterwards."
"But now it’s so easy," says Bob Wonneberger. "You’re
on a liquid diet from noon of the day before, plus you take laxatives. During
the procedure you’re pretty well sedated, so you mostly sleep through
it. I only miss a day and a half of work. It’s a very small price to
pay for warding off colon cancer."
Colon & Rectal Cancer Screening Guidelines
Colon cancer, and colon screenings, are not things people like to think
about. So the American Cancer Society (ACS) has done some of the thinking
for you. To help prevent colon cancer, the ACS recommends that people age
50 and older who do not have any symptoms of colon problems should follow
one of the examination schedules listed below:
||A fecal occult
blood test (FOBT) every year, or
||A flexible sigmoidoscopy
every five years, or
|| Annual FOBT and
flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years (Of these first 3 options, the
combination of FOBT every year and flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 years
is preferable.), or
barium enema every five years, or
||A colonoscopy every
"If a precancerous polyp is ever found, repeat colonoscopy should
be done in three years, and if clean, every 10 years after that, or every
five years if there’s a family history," says Dr. Taubin.
The Next Generation
The Wonnebergers’ family history is unusual. Colon cancer can be hereditary,
but even in families that have the colon cancer gene, it doesn’t normally
cut such a wide swath. And it’s important to know that if a relative
of yours had colon cancer, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have
the gene or that you and your children are sure to get it.
But in view of their history, Bob, John, and Lissa are now thinking about