The American Cancer Society reports that having a colonoscopy decreases your risk of developing colon cancer by a whopping 80 percent. Yet, many people avoid having this screening because of embarrassment, fear, or misunderstanding. There’s no reason to avoid this painless, quick, and potentially life-saving procedure. Here are 10 reasons why you should schedule your colonoscopy.
But first, what exactly does a colonoscopy entail? A colonoscopy is an outpatient procedure where a doctor examines the large intestines by inserting a thin, flexible scope into the rectum. The scope has a light at the end of it so as the scope advances through the colon, the doctor can get images of the lining and any unusual growths.
Colonoscopies are painless.
Yes, the tube goes exactly where you think it does. But you won’t feel a thing thanks to anesthesia. You’ll be given medicine through an IV that will keep you comfortable, virtually pain-free, and unaware of the procedure.
A nurse anesthetist will administer the medicine and watch you intently (monitoring your heart, breathing, and blood pressure) for the duration of the procedure, so the doctors can focus on the colonoscopy.
The only soreness you might feel after would be associated with your IV site, but that typically doesn’t hurt, Dr. Parekh says.
P.S. You might pass gas with some startling force for a couple of hours after the procedure. This is normal and not painful.
They are also pretty dang quick.
It’s recommended you take the whole day off work to recover from sedation, but going and getting a colonoscopy only takes about half a morning. The actual procedure can take as little as 15 to 30 minutes.
Colonoscopy prep isn’t that bad.
People like to talk about the unpleasantness of colonoscopy preparation. Doctors use “split prep,” which means you drink a prescribed laxative that will cause diarrhea for a couple of hours, starting around 7 p.m. You should be done around 10 p.m. and able to get some rest. Then, 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.
Everybody is doing it!
Well, more people are. The current recommended age for colonoscopy and other colon cancer screenings is increasingly considered to be 45 for those at average risk, five years earlier than the previous guidance.
The risk of developing colon cancer is lower in adults under 50, but recent trends have shown that risk increasing, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF).
“If your family member had cancer at 50, you should be screened at 40; and if you have multiple relatives, even primary first-degree relatives with polyps, it’s recommended you start now at 40 for just screening,” said Ryan K. Jones, M.D., colon and rectal surgeon with Norton Surgical Specialists – Colorectal Health.
Colonoscopies are the most effective, long-term option for colon cancer screening.
There are screening methods besides a colonoscopy, but none comes with as many advantages. For one, a colonoscopy usually needs to be repeated only every 10 years if results are normal. Some other methods, like flexible sigmoidoscopy (a similar procedure that looks at only part of the colon and rectum), must be done every five years. A double-contrast barium enema involves putting barium in the rectum and taking X-rays; it, too, must be done every five years. With these and other alternatives, if a polyp or suspicious mass is found, a colonoscopy will be ordered to follow up. Long story short: Might as well start with the colonoscopy.
They can screen for a lot of conditions.
Colonoscopies can detect conditions like colitis, inflammatory bowel disease, and diverticulosis. But mainly, doctors are looking for precancerous or cancerous colon polyps, which are growths on the inside of the colon’s lining. If the doctors spot polyps, they can quickly and painlessly remove them during the same colonoscopy.
They can also detect inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. Both are inflammatory diseases of the intestines. Identifying them early helps reduce the long-term damage they can do, including scarring and bleeding in the colon, malnourishment, pain, and intestinal blockages that require surgery. These diseases also might increase the risk of colorectal cancer.
It is not that embarrassing.
The procedure is typically done at an endoscopy center, and all the patients are there for gastrointestinal care. In other words, everyone is in the same boat.
Yes, everyone is there to have something done that may feel embarrassing. But you can relax—this is regular, everyday work for the clinical staff that will be taking care of you. So don’t worry.
Also, thanks to the anesthesia helping you relax, the procedure is over before you know it!
A colonoscopy could save your life.
Colonoscopies save lives. Lots of them. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that the removal of cancer-causing polyps during a colonoscopy reduces the chance of death from colorectal cancer by 53 percent.
Technology is advancing!
Recently, the first device that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help detect possible signs of colon cancer during colonoscopy was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“Artificial intelligence has the potential to transform health care to better assist health care providers and improve patient care. When AI is combined with traditional screenings or surveillance methods, it could help find problems early on, when they may be easier to treat,” said Courtney Lias, acting director of the GastroRenal, ObGyn, General Hospital and Urology Devices Office in the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health.
“Clinicians now have a tool that could help improve their ability to detect gastrointestinal lesions they may have missed otherwise,” Lias added.
If you are considered high risk for colorectal cancer, your Medicare will cover the full cost of a colonoscopy once every two years. If you are not considered high risk, Medicare will cover the costs of screening once every 10 years or four years after a flexible sigmoidoscopy. A flexible sigmoidoscopy is similar to a colonoscopy but does not probe the entire colon.
Original Medicare will pay the full cost of a colonoscopy if a medical provider who accepts Medicare rates does the procedure. However, if the procedure is considered diagnostic rather than preventive, you will likely be responsible for 20 percent of the Medicare-approved amount.
Talk to your doctor
The USPSTF recommends screening for colorectal cancer starting at age 50 years and continuing until age 75 years.
The risks and benefits of different screening methods vary. See the Clinical Considerations section and the Table for details about screening strategies.
Talk to your doctor about having a colonoscopy if you are any of the following:
- Older than 45
- Older than 40 with a family history of colon cancer or colon polyps
- You’ve noticed a change in your bowel movements or have bleeding or pain, regardless of your age