Chelsea Hospital Surgeon Discusses Colon Health, Importance of Colonoscopies


Calista Harbaugh, MD, is a Board-certified colon and rectal surgeon at Chelsea Hospital. She spoke with The Sun Times News to discuss the signs and symptoms of potential colon issues, how important it is to get a colonoscopy, and more.

STN: What exactly is a colonoscopy, and when should people first get one?

Dr. Harbaugh: A colonoscopy uses a small camera to look at the lining of the colon to make sure there is no cancer in it, and to identify pre-cancerous polyps so they can be removed early to prevent cancer in the future.

It’s recommended to receive your first colonoscopy at age 45, but that may be sooner depending on your risk factors, family history, and more.

STN: What are some common colorectal cancer symptoms we should be on the look out for?

Dr. Harbaugh: Common symptoms include blood in the stool, abdominal cramps or pain, or a change in bowel habits like thinner stool, among others. However, people can also be asymptomatic, meaning they don’t experience symptoms. That is why it’s important to be screened on time and regularly, so be sure to let your doctor know as soon as possible if you are experiencing any symptoms.

STN: How much does family history play a role in developing colorectal cancer?

Dr. Harbaugh: It plays a very important role, especially if you have a first-degree relative who has had colorectal cancer, like a parent or sibling. I urge you to get screened as soon as you can, and at regular intervals, if you have a first-degree relative with a history of colorectal cancer.

STN: The recommended age for screening was 50, now it’s 45. Are doctors seeing a rise in younger colorectal cancer patients?

Dr. Harbaugh: Yes, we are seeing more young patients with colorectal cancer. This is why the recommended age was recently lowered to 45 years old. There is no definitive answer for why more young patients are being diagnosed, so it’s important if you’re having any symptoms to talk to your doctor as soon as possible to discuss a colonoscopy.

STN: If diagnosed with colorectal cancer, what are our options?

Dr. Harbaugh: If you are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, you will undergo tests to evaluate the cancer and make sure it hasn’t spread. There are several ways we treat cancers now, and that often involves surgery. The recommended surgery will depend on the location and extent of the cancer. Cancer care may also involve other experts and treatments such as chemotherapies or radiation.

Our approach to cancer treatment at Chelsea Hospital incorporates a number of experts from a wide range of cancer-related specialties, which ensures our patients receive the highest quality care possible.

If you have concerns about your colorectal health, speak with your primary care physician. If you don’t have a primary care physician, you can find one near you by visiting

Photo: Dr. Calista Harbaugh. Courtesy Trinity Health

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