Putting your colonoscopy behind you

February 23, 2016
Putting your colonoscopy behind you. Dr. Karnes
Dr. William E. Karnes, UCI Health gastroenterologist.

Dr. William E. Karnes, a UC Irvine Health gastroenterologist, has made it his mission to encourage colon cancer screening to reduce the occurrence and deaths from the disease.

He has done this by asking UC Irvine Health patients to take a short survey on a mobile device that assesses their risk of developing colon cancer and shows how simple changes can reduce the risk. And if you’re overdue for your colonoscopy? Look out. This is a man who takes a massive inflatable model of the colon to health fairs and has even been known to don a costume.

Dr. Karnes, The Polyp Man, makes his point

Polyp Man is a really embarrassing look for me. But I have special interest in preventing colon cancer. There aren’t any other cancers out there that have this precancerous stage (the polyp stage) that sits there, that’s so easy to find and easy to remove. It gives us a window of opportunity that’s 10 to 15 years long. Just find it and take it out—no cancer!

Unfortunately polyps cause no symptoms, so screening tests are necessary. Colonoscopy is the best test for finding polyps and the only test that can remove them. If we can get people in to identify polyps and take care of them, we can easily reduce the risk of colon cancer by 90 percent.

We have a simple survey that can be done in the waiting room of the doctor’s office that tells your lifetime risk of getting colon cancer, what factors are responsible for the risk and the various things you can do to lower your risk. Family history and genetics can cause your risk to be very high.

You can eat more vegetables and see how your risk moves down. Now add a colonoscopy and see your risk shrink by up to 90 percent. My vision is to have this risk-assessment tool available to everyone.

Some people get their colonoscopies and other people say, ‘You’re not sticking that thing up my rear end; no way.’ I always tell the ‘average risk’ people, ‘You have a 1-in-20 chance of getting colon cancer if you do nothing. If you wait for symptoms, 50 percent of the time, the cat’s out of the bag and the cancer is already advanced and cannot be cured with surgery or chemotherapy.’

I want people to say, ‘Well I really don’t want a colonoscopy, but I would like every opportunity to never get colon cancer, or to at least find it early when a doctor can fix me.’ A lot of the reluctance is embarrassment. I was embarrassed both of the times I had colonoscopy. These are people I know looking at my rear end! But I weigh that with the benefits and get the colonoscopy.

Colonoscopy is easier and has improved. Pain can be made a non-issue. We have pain medication and sedatives that cause people to not remember the procedure. The scopes have gone from being like a Mack truck to being a nimble Miata that’s easier to drive.

Also our screen resolution is amazing. We can see and remove much smaller polyps. We also have underwater colonoscopy now. Instead of pumping air in the colon, we can put in water. Water doesn’t cause the colon to distend, but it makes it easier to drive the scope up and around turns, and to remove polyps.

The other thing people should know is that the quality of the colonoscopist is important. Each doctor has a polyp detection rate. That is our batting average. People need to know that. Every colonoscopist should strive to ‘leave no polyp behind.’

For more information, visit ucirvinehealth.org/colorectal.

Dr. William E. Karnes, UCI Health gastroenterologist

— UCI Health Marketing & Communications
Featured in UCI Health Live Well Magazine Winter 2016


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