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Serving the Susquehanna Region

Colonoscopy: The Gold Standard for Cancer Screening

by Puneet Basi, MD

More than 140,000 new cases of colon cancer are diagnosed each year, making it the third most common cancer and the second-leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. However, when caught early it is highly treatable. If you knew there was a screening test that could dramatically decrease your risk, would you take it? The gold standard in colon cancer screening is the colonoscopy.  

Colonoscopy is the most effective and most common type of screening. Unlike other cancer screenings which can only detect a problem, colorectal screening with colonoscopy can prevent colon cancer by allowing doctors to detect and remove precancerous polyps during the exam. 

How do I prepare? 

Some people express fear over the procedure, especially the preparation, however, there are newer medications that make the preparation process much easier.

Preparation of the bowel is an extremely important part of the colonoscopy because it allows your physician to have the clearest view available to see flat and small polyps. This process begins the day before your exam and is designed to empty your colon completely. Many patients say this is the most challenging part of the entire test because it requires a day-long liquid diet and taking laxatives that cause diarrhea. As a result, planning to be close to a toilet during this stage is essential. The good news? The prep is worth the result, and recent improvements have made the prep shorter and easier featuring newer, better-tasting medications in smaller amounts and spread-out doses.

What can I expect during my colonoscopy?

On your screening day, you may have an initial consultation with the doctor. For your exam, you will change into a gown and be asked to lie on your side on the exam table. As for the procedure itself, you won’t even remember it. You will receive medicine through an IV to keep you in comfortable and relaxed. 

The colon screening procedure takes about 15 to 20 minutes. While you are resting, the doctor inserts a flexible tube with a light source and a tiny video camera at its tip into your colon. The camera sends images from inside your colon to a screen that can be viewed by your doctor. If needed, the doctor can then remove polyps or to take tissue samples for additional study. After your exam, you’ll need some time to recover from the sleeping medication, so you are required to have someone available to drive you home. Complications are exceedingly rare; only about 5% of patients report some mild abdominal cramping, similar to having a bowel movement, following the procedure.

Symptoms of Colon Cancer

If you have any of the following symptoms, talk to your doctor:

  • Blood in stool
  • Change in bowel habits that lasts more than a few days including diarrhea or constipation
  • Feeling your bowel doesn’t fully empty
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Cramping or stomach pain
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Weakness or fatigue

When should I get a colonoscopy?

Everyone over the age of 50 should have a colonoscopy, and if you have a family history or are at high risk, your doctor may recommend getting a screening sooner and more often. Family history is one of the key risk factors of colon cancer. If you have a family history, you should talk to your doctor about getting screened 10 years before your family member was diagnosed. 

Talk with your doctor to find out when screening is appropriate for you – it could save your life

Learn more about colonoscopies at UPMC.