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Published on April 02, 2021

Colon Cancer Prevention: What is a Colonoscopy, and Why Is It Important?

What is a colonoscopy

It cannot be overstated. It’s very important to be screened for colorectal cancer. In fact, nearly 1 out of every 20 Americans will develop colon cancer in their lifetime.

The most common way to screen for colorectal cancer is with colonoscopy. During this screening, a doctor uses a tiny camera attached to a small flexible tube to detect any abnormalities in the colon and the rectum. If any polyps are found, they can be immediately removed.

Colonoscopy is considered the gold standard of colorectal screening for its ability to see and remove polyps during the same procedure.

A colonoscopy typically takes 30-60 minutes, with a day in advance to prepare your large intestine for the exam. During a colonoscopy, the patient is sedated and typically remembers nothing when it is over. After the exam, the doctor will review the results of the colonoscopy and share that information with you. Your doctor will then recommend that you have another colonoscopy:

  • In 10 years if you have no colon cancer risks other than your age.
  • In 1-10 years if you have a history of polyps from a previous procedure - the timing depends on the number and size of the polyps previously found. 

Let’s be honest. A modest person may feel some embarrassment at the thought of colonoscopy. This could prevent important conversations between you and your health care provider about any symptoms you may be having or the need for regular exams.

Two things you should know about colonoscopy:

  1. It’s not nearly as embarrassing or uncomfortable as you may imagine.
  2. It is too important not to do. Your life may depend on it.

Why Should I Get a Colonoscopy?

Early detection of colon cancer is important. Because of increasingly sedentary lifestyles and low-fiber, high-fat diets, colon cancer is becoming more common.

Other risk factors for colon cancer include:

  • Being over 45.
  • Being of African-American descent. 
  • Inflammatory intestinal conditions such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.
  • Family history.
  • Diabetes.
  • Obesity.
  • Smoking.
  • Heavy alcohol use.

Colon cancer is so dangerous because most people feel no symptoms in the early stages of the disease. That is why a colonoscopy is so important.

Signs and symptoms of colon cancer may include:

  • A noticeable change in bowel habits and stool consistency lasting for more than four weeks.
  • Rectal bleeding or blood in stool.
  • Persistent abdominal discomfort – cramps, gas or pain.
  • The sensation that your bowel never completely empties.
  • Weakness, fatigue.
  • Unexplained weight loss.

According to National Cancer Institute data, the relative 5-year survival rate for stage I colon cancer is 92 percent, compared to an 11 percent survival rate for stage IV. Early detection and diagnosis are the key and a colonoscopy is the best way screen for the disease.

Reduce Your Risk

Lifestyle changes can reduce your risk of colon cancer. There are steps you can take in your everyday life:

  • Eat a variety of fruits, vegetable and whole grains
  • Use alcohol in moderation, if at all
  • Don’t smoke
  • Exercise for 30 minutes a day
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Screenings

Talk to your health care provider to see if it is time for a colonoscopy. The American Cancer Society recommends that colon cancer screenings begin at age 45, but if any signs or symptoms are present, it may be best to go ahead and get a colonoscopy.

About the Author

Darren Wohl, MDDarren Wohl, MD, practices gastroenterology and hepatology at Alamance Gastroenterology.