The Dreaded Colonoscopy

If you feel a little uncomfortable just thinking about having a colonoscopy, that’s perfectly normal. No one says colonoscopies are fun, but they are necessary.

One thing many of us dread about turning 50 is going in for our first colonoscopy, as recommended in the American Cancer Society guidelines for the early detection of cancer. The exam is performed to identify any changes or abnormalities in the large intestine (colon) and rectum in order to prevent colorectal cancer.

If you feel a little uncomfortable just thinking about having a colonoscopy, that’s perfectly normal. No one says colonoscopies are fun, but they are necessary. Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer for both men and women. While the number of new cases is still high, it has dropped dramatically over the past 20 years, which is largely attributed to the fact that more people are getting colonoscopies.

Colorectal cancer nearly always starts with non-cancerous (benign) growths called polyps, which would typically be identified and removed during a colonoscopy. Given the alternative of colon cancer, most would agree that a colonoscopy is worth the inconvenience. 

The colonoscopy procedure involves a flexible tube with a tiny video camera at the tip. This is inserted into the rectum, allowing the doctor to see the inside of the entire colon. If polyps or other types of abnormal tissue are detected, they will be removed through the scope during the exam. Tissue samples (biopsies) can be taken as well. You should not feel any discomfort and probably won’t remember the procedure after it’s completed, because the medications commonly used for sedation during a colonoscopy will put you into a sleepy and relaxing “twilight” state.

Some people say the most difficult part of a colonoscopy is the preparation. This has improved significantly over the years, but it is still necessary to completely empty the colon in order for the exam to be successful. Instructions will vary by doctor, but they typically include avoiding solid foods the day before the exam. On the evening before your colonoscopy, you will take something prescribed by your doctor to cleanse your bowels, which will likely cause diarrhea.

The best news is that if no polyps or other abnormalities are found during the colonoscopy, you generally won’t need another one for 10 years, according to the American Cancer Society. Frequency may vary with individuals, so be sure to check with your doctor.

If you have a family history of colorectal cancer, or have other related risk factors or symptoms, you should consult your doctor. You may need to have your first colonoscopy before you turn 50.

In addition to having a colonoscopy, you may be able to lower your risk for colorectal cancer with regular physical activity, good nutrition and a low intake of alcohol. Click here for details.

There is no sure way to prevent breast cancer. But you may help lower your risk by maintaining a healthy body weight, limiting how much alcohol you drink and getting regular exercise.