Colon cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S.—but it’s also one of the most preventable cancers, thanks to a screening tool called a colonoscopy. This examination can both detect and treat polyps (growths in the lining of the colon) before they turn into cancer.
During a colonoscopy, a long, narrow, flexible tube with a high-definition camera at the end is used to evaluate a person’s rectum and colon. Colonoscopies can detect conditions such as colitis, inflammatory bowel disease, bleeding and diverticulosis. But mainly, doctors are looking for precancerous or cancerous colon polyps, which are mushroom-shaped growths on the colon’s lining. If doctors spot polyps, they can quickly and painlessly remove them during the colonoscopy.
While it may get a bad rap, a colonoscopy is really not a big deal—especially since it can help save your life. Here are five reasons to get a colonoscopy.
1. A colonoscopy is painless.
Yes, the tube goes exactly where you think it does, but you won’t feel a thing.
You’ll be given medicine through an IV that will keep you comfortable, pain-free and unaware of the procedure.
“We give you twilight anesthesia, which makes you fall asleep. The anesthesia typically has a mild amnesic effect, so you won’t remember the procedure,” says UNC Rex Digestive Healthcare gastroenterologist Silpa Yalamanchili, MD. “You will be asleep, although still breathing on your own.”
A nurse anesthetist will administer the medicine and monitor your heart, breathing and blood pressure during the procedure so the doctors can focus on the colonoscopy.
The only soreness you might feel afterward would be from your IV site, but that typically doesn’t hurt.
You also might pass gas with some startling force for a couple of hours after the procedure. This is normal and not painful.
2. A colonoscopy is quick.
Although you should plan to take the day off work to recover from being under anesthesia, going to get a colonoscopy only takes about half a morning. (The actual procedure can take as little as 15 or 20 minutes.)
At Rex Digestive Healthcare, if you are healthy and don’t have bowel symptoms, you don’t have to have a consultation before scheduling your colonoscopy. You can schedule your procedure after answering a few screening questions.
3. Forget what you’ve heard. Colonoscopy prep is not that bad.
People like to talk about the unpleasantness of colonoscopy preparation. But over the past decade, colonoscopy preparation has been improved and refined. The truth is, it’s not that bad anymore.
Doctors use split prep, which means you drink a prescribed laxative that will cause diarrhea for a couple of hours, starting around 5 p.m. You should be finished around 10 p.m. and able to get some rest. In the morning, you take the second half of the laxative. You’ll need to visit the bathroom with some urgency, but it shouldn’t be as intense as the previous evening, since the majority of your fecal matter will have been flushed out.
“We now offer a tablet-based prep, which is particularly attractive to patients who either have trouble drinking large volumes of fluid or drinking flavored products, especially since many of the liquid-based preps can taste salty,” Dr. Yalamanchili says. “The pills are about the size of a Tylenol tablet.”
Like the liquid prep, you take multiple tablets at different times—12 pills the night before the procedure and 12 pills again five hours before the procedure.
Proper preparation is the patient’s end of the bargain. A colonoscopy is most effective when prep is done as directed.
4. You’re not necessarily too young for a colonoscopy.
New guidelines call for colorectal cancer screening starting at age 45 if you’re at average risk. If you’re at increased risk, based on a family history of colon cancer or colon polyps, you’ll want to start earlier, typically at age 40.
“Anyone who has a family history in a first-degree family member—that’s parents or siblings who have colon cancer—should also get screened early. The age of screening in that case depends on the age at which the affected family member was diagnosed with colon cancer,” Dr. Yalamanchili says. “Patients who have first-degree family members who had advanced polyps or precancerous polyps should get screened early as well.”
Colorectal cancer disproportionately affects the Black community, whose rates are the highest of any racial or ethnic group in the United States. Black Americans are about 20 percent more likely to get colorectal cancer and about 40 percent more likely to die from it than most other groups.
“For that reason, African Americans should be screened at age 45 or sooner, depending on family history,” Dr. Yalamanchili says.
No matter your age or race, if you have blood in your stool, weakness and fatigue, or a major change in your bowel habits, talk to your doctor. Recent research from the American Cancer Society found a sharp rise in colorectal cancer rates among adults in their 20s and 30s; in fact, a person born in 1990 has double the risk of colon cancer and four times the risk of rectal cancer compared with people born in 1950.
5. A colonoscopy could save your life.
Last but not least, right? Colonoscopies save lives. Lots of them.
“There is a 90 percent reduction in colon cancer risk after colonoscopy,” Dr. Yalamanchili says.
Ultimately, a quick, easy and safe colonoscopy just might save your life.
“The most important thing to remember about a colonoscopy is that while it may seem uncomfortable or embarrassing in the short term,” Dr. Yalamanchili says, “it’s a lot easier to get through a preventive screening exam than to deal with cancer down the line.”
If you’re 45 or older or have symptoms of a bowel disorder, talk to your doctor about scheduling a colonoscopy. If you’re looking for a gastroenterologist, find one near you.