Colonoscopies save lives
A colonoscopy allows us to look inside the large intestine (colon) for the presence of cancer or precancerous growths. It is one of our most important exams for men and women ages 50 and older.
About 150,000 Americans are diagnosed with colon cancer each year, and 50,000 die from the disease. Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths, yet many of these deaths could be prevented if older adults followed testing recommendations.
Many people postpone or neglect colonoscopies because they believe the tests are too invasive, uncomfortable and time-consuming. But the ease of the exam surprises most of our patients.
During a colonoscopy, we insert inside the rectum a long flexible tube attached with a video camera that allows us to inspect the large intestine for polyps or other suspicious-looking tissue that could be cancerous or develop into cancer. The polyps can be removed and biopsied during the procedure.
Although only about five percent of polyps are found to be cancer; we remove benign polyps so they don’t turn into cancer. Colon cancer always starts as a polyp and removing the polyp is the only way we know to prevent the disease.
The procedure itself takes 20 minutes to an hour. Patients wear a gown and take the exam while lying on their sides on an exam table. A mild sedative and/or intravenous pain medication minimizes discomfort. You’ll need to have someone drive you home and you’ll need to take the rest of the day off work while the medication wears off.
The procedure poses very few risks. Rare complications include adverse reaction to the medication, bleeding from the site where tissue is removed and a tear in the colon or rectal wall.
Most patients agree that the home preparation the night before your colonoscopy is the most unpleasant part of the procedure. We typically ask patients to fast and take a laxative to clean out their colon so we can see a clear and accurate picture of it during the exam. The cleansing involves repeated trips to the restroom before your visit.
The American Cancer Society recommends a colonoscopy every 10 years beginning at age 50 for men and women. People considered to be at high risk for the disease may need to start screening before age 50 and be screened more frequently. It is important that people with risk factors discuss their screening schedule with their physician.
Risk factors include age, family history, African-American race, high-fat and low-fiber diet, sedentary lifestyle, diabetes, obesity, smoking and heavy alcohol use. About 90 percent of colon cancer cases occur in people over the age of 50. You are more likely to develop the disease if you have had a first-degree relative with a diagnosis; your risk is even greater if more than one family member has had it.
If you experience rectal bleeding, be sure to discuss it with your doctor. It could be a sign of colon cancer at any age.
The colonoscopy is the best method we have to examine the entire large intestine for cancer or precancerous tissue. The test is especially important because colon cancer often does not present symptoms in its early stages. The absence of symptoms is no reason to postpone your colonoscopy.
There is no reason to be nervous or embarrassed about the procedure.
During March, National Colorectal Awareness Month, schedule your colonoscopy and encourage your friends and family to do the same. It is painless and may save your life.
Dr. Ken Graffeo is a board certified surgeon with Delaware Surgical Specialists and an active member of the Grady Memorial Hospital Staff.