According to the American Cancer Society, colon cancer is one of the five most common types of cancer, but thanks in large part to increased awareness about the importance of colonoscopy, the death rate from colorectal cancer has been steadily declining. Typically, colon cancer has no symptoms. Screening is the only way to detect anomalies, including finding and removing polyps before they become cancerous. The purpose of a colonoscopy is to detect early cancers or polyps in the colon (large intestine) and rectum. A polyp is a tiny growth on the inside of the colon. They are usually benign, but sometimes they can become cancerous, which is why adults over age 50 should be tested. It’s a common procedure, yet it seems that everyone wonders what to expect during a colonoscopy.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says up to 60 percent of deaths from colon cancer could be avoided if every 50+ aged individual was screened on a regular basis. If you are in the “average risk” group, you should be tested every 10 years. If you are at higher risk, your doctor may recommend getting your first colonoscopy at an earlier age and/or repeating the exam more often. Higher risk is generally associated with family or personal history with colorectal cancer or chronic inflammatory bowel disease.
What is colon screening?
The most common type of screening is a colonoscopy. A colonoscope is long enough for the doctor to examine your entire large intestine.
The scope is capable of removing polyps, if any are found, and can also take tissue samples. The test is performed under light anesthesia (you won’t be “out,” but you may not remember much about the tests), with pain medication given intravenously. A colonoscopy takes about 45 minutes, but you should plan about two hours overall, for prep time and to give yourself a chance to become less groggy before going home. You won’t be allowed to drive after the procedure, so you’ll need a ride from a friend or family member.
The best person to perform your colonoscopy is a board-certified gastroenterologist. These physicians specialize in recognizing, diagnosing and treating bowel-related problems, so they perform far more colonoscopies than other doctors.
When should you get a colonoscopy?
Because polyps are usually found in older people, adults should be screened beginning at age 50. After that, the American Cancer Society recommends you have another colonoscopy every 10 years.
If you have specific risk factors for colon cancer, your doctor will likely recommend that you begin screening exams earlier and perhaps continue to be screened more often. High-risk factors include:
- African American heritage.
- Family history of colon cancer or polyps.
- Family history of hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome - familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer (HNPCC).
- Personal history of colorectal cancer, adenomatous polyps or inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
This exam could save your life.
Talk to your health care provider if you experience ongoing changes in bowel habits, abdominal pain or rectal bleeding, because these could be symptoms of colorectal cancer. And if your doctor says you should be tested, you now know what to expect during a colonoscopy.