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Regular Screenings Prevent Colon Cancer

At Wonneberger family gatherings, the question on everyone’s lips isn’t "How have you been?" It’s … "Have You Been Screened?"

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

"I 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

"I 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

Lissa 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 says thankfully.

"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."

"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."

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.

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
  • A double-contrast barium enema every five years, or
  • A colonoscopy every 10 years

"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.

middle aged woman drinking water

What Patients Can Expect When They Prepare for a Colonoscopy