People often ask me why would a girl like me want to do a job like colonoscopies. My enthusiastic answer is there is not much we can do in medicine to actually prevent cancer, but screening colonoscopies are one great way to prevent colon cancer. Anyone without a family history of colon cancer should get their first screening colonoscopy at the age of 45. If there are not polyps, you only need one every 10 years. If there are polyps, the doctor may recommend doing them more frequently.
A colon polyp is a benign growth in the colon that has the potential to turn into a cancer over the course of a few years. Not all polyps will become a cancer, but we cannot tell which ones will and which ones will not. If we see those polyps with a colonoscopy while they are still benign and remove them, then they never get the opportunity to become a cancer.
The colonoscopy procedure can be intimidating. The most difficult part is actually not what most people expect—it’s the night and morning before the procedure. Your colon needs to be very clean for the doctor to see the polyps as polyps may only be a few millimeters in size. You are asked to not eat solid food the day before the procedure and then your doctor prescribes you a colon preparation. This usually entails a liquid drink, pills, or powder you mix with liquid. You then must drink a lot of fluids to push the preparation through your bowels to clean all of the stool out.
The day of the procedure you will meet the team and get a light sedation. While you are taking a nice nap, the doctor inserts a long, thin tube with a camera on the end to look at your entire colon which is usually a few feet long.
If the doctor sees polyps, they can painlessly remove them during the colonoscopy. Most people wake up saying they felt they had a great nap and do not remember any of the procedure. Your friend or loved one can take you out to a nice breakfast while you celebrate that you just prevented yourself from getting colon cancer.
There are less invasive ways to screen for colon cancer, but these are not as good at detecting colon cancer as a colonoscopy—and you may still end up needing a colonoscopy. There are stool tests that check for blood or DNA from cancer or a large polyp. These tests must be done much more frequently than a colonoscopy and if they are positive, you will still need a colonoscopy to check to see if there is a cancer that caused the positive test. A virtual colonoscopy still requires you to do the colon preparation—which is the worst part of the colonoscopy—and if a polyp is found, you must still do a colonoscopy with a second colon preparation.
While everyone over the age of 45 should get a screening colonoscopy, anyone that is experiencing a change in bowel habits, new blood in their stool, or unexplained weight loss should talk to their doctor about getting a colonoscopy even if they may not be due for one. If you have a strong family history of colon cancer, it is recommended to get a colonoscopy every 5 years and start ten years younger than the age of your loved one when they were diagnosed with colon cancer.
If you would like to schedule your colonoscopy or have questions regarding colonoscopies, please contact us at Asante General and Colorectal Surgery. Our wonderful staff is here to make your experience as quick, easy, and comfortable as possible.
Megan Frost, MD, is board-certified in general surgery and provides personalized care across a broad spectrum of general surgical procedures, focusing on breast cancer, colonoscopies and abdominal pathology.