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Why Ryan Reynolds is telling people to get a colonoscopy

Ryan Reynolds, pictured in 2016, filmed his colonoscopy. A doctor found and safely removed a polyp.
Dimitrios Kambouris
/
Getty Images
Ryan Reynolds, pictured in 2016, filmed his colonoscopy. A doctor found and safely removed a polyp.

What began as a friendly bet between Hollywood actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney turned into a life-saving, teachable moment.

"I made a bet. I lost. But it still paid off," Reynolds wrote on YouTube, as part of a public awareness campaign for colon cancer.

It all started last year when the pair, who co-own a Welsh soccer club, made a bet of whether McElhenney could learn to speak Welsh. If McElhenney, who stars in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, won the wager, Reynolds agreed to publicly film his colonoscopy.

But while keeping his side of the bargain, Reynolds' doctor detected a benign polyp — tissue growths which can be a precursor to cancer.

Reynolds, who has three kids and is expecting a fourth, had no symptoms of a growing polyp and it was "extremely subtle" before it was removed, his doctor said in a video posted on Tuesday about the experience.

"This was potentially lifesaving for you. I'm not kidding," Reynolds' doctor told the actor.

McElhenney also decided to have a colonoscopy and his doctor removed three polyps, which is shown later in the video.

Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. but it is highly preventable through early screenings. Here's what you need to know:

When to schedule a colonoscopy

In most cases, adults between the ages of 45 to 75 should be scheduling routine colonoscopies every 10 years, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force found.

Some people younger than 45 are recommended to get screened if they have inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn's disease, a personal or family history of colon cancer or a genetic syndrome that causes polyp growth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People with these conditions should also get screened more often, the American Cancer Society says.

It's important to get screened sooner rather than later, experts said. In fact, colon cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths for people under 50, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Recent studies show that screening colonoscopies can reduce the relative risk of getting colon cancer by 52% and the risk of dying from it by 62%.

What to expect with the screening itself

Colonoscopies involve a long, thin, flexible tube to check for polyps or cancer inside the rectum and entire colon. If polyps are detected — similar to Reynolds and McElhenney's case — doctors will also use the time to remove them.

Polyps tend to be common — more than 40% of adults over 50 have precancerous polyps in the colon, according to the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy.

The procedure generally takes 30 minutes to an hour.

Colonoscopies are one of several ways to get screened for colon cancer, including non-invasive stool tests and sigmoidoscopies, which involve a short, thin tube put in the rectum to check the lower third of the colon.

The CDC recommends patients talk to their doctors about which test is right for you.

Colonoscopies are supposed to be free but patients have reported getting billed — what to do if it happens to you

Preventative health care like mammograms and colonoscopies are meant to be free of charge to patients under the Affordable Care Act, but there are some exceptions.

Some patients may be billed for the procedure if it's for "diagnosis" versus "screening" purposes. That distinction is often decided by doctors and hospitals. For instance, people with a family history of colon cancer or a personal history of polyps are likely to have a higher risk of cancer and therefore, see their colonoscopy classified as "diagnostic."

It's important to note polyp removals are usually not enough to be considered "diagnostic" under the law. Because there's little federal oversight around this provision, the onus is up to the patient to ensure they are billed correctly.

Experts recommend checking for any coverage minefields that would allow providers to charge for polyp removal.

"Contact the insurer prior to the colonoscopy and say, 'Hey, I just want to understand what the coverage limitations are and what my out-of-pocket costs might be,' " Anna Howard, a policy principal at the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network, told Kaiser Health News.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.