Each year, March is recognized as Colon Cancer Awareness Month. Colon cancer is the third most common cancer in the United States and the second leading cause of cancer-related death that affects both men and women, behind lung cancer. But it doesn’t have to be this way; educating the public about the importance of screening for the disease can save lives.
Below are a few things you need to know about colonoscopies.
1. Colonoscopies can PREVENT colon cancer.
Colonoscopies allow a physician to examine the inside of your large intestine (colon). We’re looking for small growths of tissue on the wall of your colon, called polyps. Most of these polyps are precancerous in nature and, when left to grow, will turn into cancer. Finding these polyps during a colonoscopy allows us to remove them before they can become cancerous.
2. Colonoscopies can DETECT colon cancer while it’s still in an early stage.
Polyps left to grow develop into cancer over time. Individuals most often do not experience any symptoms until the cancer is large. Unfortunately by that time, the cancer may not be curable. Some common symptoms of colon cancer include blood in or on the stool, stomach pain, alteration in bowel habits, aches or cramps that do not go away, and unexplained weight loss. If you have colon cancer, a colonoscopy is the best way to find it in an early stage, making it easier to remove and hopefully cure.
3. You should schedule a colonoscopy if you are age 50 or older, or at an increased risk for the disease.
Although the disease can occur at any age, the majority of individuals diagnosed are over the age of 50. A healthy adult should first get screened soon after his or her 50th birthday and approximately every 10 years after that, until the age of 75. Some individuals may need a colonoscopy at a younger age or more frequently (every 3-5 years), including those with certain gastrointestinal conditions, those with a family history of colon cancer or polyps, or those who were found to have polyps on prior colonoscopy. The disease affects men and women equally.
4. They’re just not that bad.
Colonoscopies save lives. Still, many people avoid them for as long as possible – or entirely. I can promise you, most of my patients tell me that their colonoscopy wasn’t that big of a deal.
- The day before the procedure, you will need to completely empty your colon. Historically, that involved drinking practically gallons of sometimes rotten-egg-tasting fluids. This is not the case anymore. In fact, at Meriter, standard procedure involves mixing flavorless Miralax into a low-volume (approximately half the amount used in the past) clear liquid of your choice, like Gatorade or fruit juice.
- The actual procedure takes typically 30 minutes or less. Many people sleep through their exam and have no memory of the actual test at all.
- When you’re done with the procedure, you will likely feel a little sleepy, groggy or confused. After a friend or family member drives you home, you will spend the rest of your day relaxing.
- Even following a polyp removal and biopsy, you should feel only minor discomfort after the exam. Because we insufflate air into your colon to allow us to see during the exam, many people experience some slight cramping due to residual gas. This generally lasts just a few hours.
- The great news is if no abnormal growths or polyps are found, you will not need another colonoscopy for 10 years.
The purpose of a colonoscopy is to ensure you’re healthy and stay healthy. There is a lot of hype, but the procedure isn’t nearly as bad as many might have heard or expect. I encourage you to talk with your doctor to learn more about colonoscopies and find out whether one is right for you.