A Colonoscopy? Do I Have to?

Nona Wills

If you’re over 50 and haven’t had a colonoscopy yet, what’s your excuse? If you say you can’t afford one because you don’t have insurance − if you live in Maine, you can throw that excuse right out the window.

Maine is fortunate to be one of 26 states and tribal organizations to receive a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for a Colorectal Cancer Control Program.  The funding makes it possible for eligible Mainers to get a colonoscopy at no cost.

To qualify you have to be 50 or older, have no insurance (or insurance that does not cover the cost of a colon cancer screening test), and report an income less than 250% of the Federal Poverty Level.

Maine Colorectal Cancer Control Program Eligibility Guidelines

Family size 100% 250%
1 $10,830 $27,075
2 $14,570 $36,425
3 $18,310 $45,775
4 $22,050 $55,125
5 $25,790 $64,475
6 $29,530 $73,825
7 $33,270 $83,175
8 $37,010 $92,525

If you want to learn more about the program or find out if you qualify, call the Colon Screening Hotline at 1-800-877-6800. You’ll be connected to a program coordinator who will help you understand the resources in your local area. The Maine Colorectal Cancer Control Program is a statewide program with coordinators at MaineHealth in Portland, Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, MaineGeneral Health in Augusta, and Eastern Maine Medical Center in Portland. Aysha Sheikh, the MaineHealth Coordinator, is passionate about helping people find the resources they need and getting them to understand the importance of screening. “A colonoscopy is really about preventions as much as screening,” says Aysha. That’s because if the doctor finds a pre-cancerous polyp during a colonoscopy it can be removed on the spot.

Raising awareness about colorectal cancer is another major goal of the program. To that end, it recently launched ScreenME, an initiative that spreads the word about colorectal cancer screening by sharing personal stories in TV and radio ads, posters, and on the ScreenME web site. Nona Wills, who had her first colonoscopy at 50 and was diagnosed with colon cancer,  jumped at the chance to share her story.  “I’m a classic case of why it’s important to have a colonoscopy,” explains Nona. “People need to hear my story. I’m lucky because I lived to tell the tale.”

A colonoscopy is considered the gold standard for colon cancer screening because it offers the best chance of finding both precancerous polyps and cancer.  The American Cancer Society also has recommendations for other screening tests for people 50 and over who are at average risk for developing colorectal cancer.

Tests that find polyps and cancer

  • Colonoscopy every 10 years
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 years*
  • Double-contrast barium enema every 5 years*
  • CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy) every 5 years*

Tests that mainly find cancer

  • Fecal occult blood test (FOBT) every year*,**
  • Fecal immunochemical test (FIT) every year*,**
  • Stool DNA test (sDNA), interval uncertain*
*Colonoscopy should be done if test results are positive.
**An FOBT or FIT done during a digital rectal exam (DRE) in the doctor’s office is not adequate for screening. Research has shown that doing it this way will miss more than 90% of colon abnormalities, including most cancers.  Instead, you should use the take-home multiple sample method.

If you are 50 or older or have a family history of colorectal cancer, please don’t procrastinate. Talk to your healthcare provider now about getting screened. If you’re worried that you can’t afford it, call 1-800-877-6800.  It may save your life.  Just ask Nona. You can read her story and others on the ScreenME web site.