Steward Health Care and Steward Medical Group Gastroenterologist Robert Flanigan, MD explains why it’s not so scary.
The stigma around the word colonoscopy needs to change. Did you know that early colorectal cancer usually has no symptoms? It’s true! Which is why getting a colonoscopy is so important—life-saving important.
About Colorectal Cancer
Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in both men and women and a leading cause of U.S. cancer deaths according to the American Cancer Society.
We know that early colorectal cancer usually has no symptoms. Warning signs typically occur with more advanced disease and may include rectal bleeding, blood in the stool, a change in bowel habits, or cramping pain in the abdomen. Fortunately, routine testing can help prevent colorectal cancer or find it at an early stage. If found early, the 5-year survival rate is 90 percent.
Still cringing at the word colonoscopy? Here are seven things to know about getting a colonoscopy.
- What is a colonoscopy and when do I need one? A colonoscopy is an exam that lets a doctor closely look at the inside of the entire colon and rectum to find polyps or signs of cancer. It is recommended for everyone to get a colonoscopy starting at age 50; however African American patients should consider starting screening at age 45. Those with first-degree family members who have had colon cancer need to discuss with their doctor about what age to start screening.
- What is a bowel prep? A bowel prep is what you might think—a process to clean out your colon, so the doctor can see inside clearly and get good pictures. The prep may include eating a special diet, drinking up to a gallon of a liquid laxative or medicines.
- Where are colonoscopies done? Colonoscopies may be done in a doctor’s office, hospital, clinic, or surgery center in a private room.
- What to expect? The colonoscopy itself takes about 30 minutes. Patients are usually given medicine to help relax and sleep while it’s done. Plan to have someone drive you home.
- Does it hurt? This is by far the most common question. And the answer is typically NO. Most people don’t feel any pain during the procedure but do feel some discomfort or cramping after.
- What if they find something? If a small polyp is found during your colonoscopy, your doctor will probably remove it during the test. If the polyp is too large to be removed, or if you have an abnormality that looks like cancer, the doctor will take a small piece of it out to check for cancer or pre-cancer cells. The results of this tissue analysis will determine whether you need additional procedures or treatment.
- How often is a colonoscopy needed? If nothing is found, you can go up to 10 years without another test. People older than 75 should talk with their health care provider about if they should keep getting screened. If something is found, you may need more frequent tests or treatment.
Many more lives could be saved by understanding colorectal cancer risks, increasing screening rates, and making lifestyle changes. The bottom line is that colonoscopies offer the most powerful opportunity to prevent colorectal cancer or detect it early. Most people can help reduce their risk of colorectal cancer by eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding tobacco, limiting alcohol intake and increasing their level of physical activity.
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