How to Have the Colonoscopy Talk with Family Members

March 5, 2021

How to Have the Colonoscopy Talk with Family Members

paper diagram of colon

While it might be difficult – or awkward – having a conversation with your loved ones about importance of colonoscopy is important.

Anyone age 50 or older should have this test, which not only can detect colon cancer, but remove the polyps that are often the early signs of this deadly cancer. For people who have a family history of colon cancer or colon polyps, colonoscopy may be recommended even earlier.

“Conversations about health can be tricky to start, especially when it’s colon health,” said Robert Allison, MDAvera Medical Group Internal Medicine Pierre. “You can lead with the facts – this is a deadly disease, but one that’s preventable – or you can try humor. There’s certainly no shortage of colonoscopy jokes.”

No matter how you get the conversation going, start it today. No matter what approach you take – and you might need to try a few – it’s worth it if your loved one gets that appointment set up.

The Colon Cancer Screening Conversation

When doctors can catch colon cancer before it starts, by removing precancerous polyps, likelihood of successful treatment is much higher. That’s why colonoscopy is the gold standard in colon screenings. Colonoscopy is best, doctors say, because:

  • It’s the only exam that allows providers to also remove polyps preventing colon cancer
  • It gives provides a comprehensive overview of your entire colon and its condition

Getting one can save you or someone you love from having to go through all the difficulties of cancer treatment or dying from the third-leading cause of death for cancers in the United States.

Talking to your loved ones can help remove worries or stigma, too. It can also help families understand any family history.

“The more we can talk about and normalize the colon exam as part of health, the better,” said Allison. “That’s why these talks are important. For example, someone in their 40s who has a first-degree relative who had colon cancer, their next step could be a colonoscopy. People without that history of colon cancer could wait until 50, unless they have other signs.”

For all adults, regular annual physical exams, are important for discussing health, including colon health, he added.

Medical Questions to Ask Your Family

Knowing your family history – even parts of it – can help health care providers evaluate risk. Some of the most important facts they want to know include:

  • Whether your siblings or either of your parents were diagnosed with or passed away due to colon cancer
  • The age at which your loved one was diagnosed or passed away
  • Other types of cancer your family member may have had

“Like all families, health histories are unique,” said Kayla York, MS, CGC, Lead Genetic Counselor with Avera Cancer Institute Sioux Falls. “When we meet with patients, we send a questionnaire out ahead of time, and that can often help families get the conversation started with their loved ones.”

These are valuable-but-difficult conversations to have. Colon cancer can be hereditary.

“Talking about cancer can be hard. It’s a private topic and it can be taboo. We talk about it more now,” said York. “But it’s fairly common for family members to not know a lot about health history.”

Questions like these can help when gathering family history information::

  • Did they ever have chemotherapy or radiation treatment?
  • Did they ever go in for surgery?
  • If they had surgery, what was it for?

Once you’ve talked – once, twice or more – then it’s time to take action with your family member and make an appointment to set up a screening or talk to your primary care provider about your risk factors.