Colonoscopies are the best tool to prevent colon cancer or catch it in early stages when it is more easily treatable.
Regional One Health gastroenterologist Leonard Baidoo, MD is letting patients know what to expect from this common screening exam, which average-risk people should have starting at age 45.
Dr. Baidoo says the test is not painful, and patients typically resume normal activities shortly after heading home following their exam.
The American Cancer Association recently recommended average-risk people get their first colonoscopy at age 45 instead of age 50. If your age or other risk factors have you in line for this common screening exam, here’s what you can expect.
Leonard Baidoo, MD is a world-renowned gastroenterologist at Regional One Health. He said a colonoscopy is the best way to prevent cancer from developing and spreading.
“A colonoscopy lets us catch and remove polyps before they become cancerous,” he explained. “If you wait until a polyp turns to cancer, the chances are it will be bigger, and the surgery to remove it will be more difficult. It can also allow cancer to spread to other parts of your body, and you might need additional surgery and chemotherapy.”
Before your test
Preparing for a colonoscopy starts a few days prior to the test.
Dr. Baidoo said patients should talk to their primary care physician about whether they need to stop any medications before their colonoscopy. For example, you should stop taking blood thinners about five days before the test – if a polyp is discovered, your doctor will remove it, and blood thinners could put you at risk of excessive bleeding.
The day before your test, do not eat solid foods. Dr. Baidoo said liquids are fine, including water, soda, tea, coffee and broth. Avoid red liquids, as they can be mistaken for blood.
You’ll also be given a laxative drink to clean out your bowels so your doctor will be able to see polyps or other areas of concern. Patients who suffer from constipation may need more of the laxative drink, may need to avoid solid foods for longer than a day, or may require an enema prior to the colonoscopy.
The day of your test
On the day of your colonoscopy, you’ll be required to have a support person come with you to the clinic and wait while you have your test. You’ll be sedated for the test, and you’ll need someone to take you home in case you aren’t fully alert, Dr. Baidoo said.
The colonoscopy itself will take 30 minutes to an hour and is not painful. Your doctor inserts a tube through the rectum into the colon, then uses a camera to look for polyps and other growths.
Once the sedation wears off, patients are typically given a drink and a snack. Dr. Baidoo talks to patients before they go home to tell them whether he saw any areas of concern and to let them know when they’ll need their next colonoscopy. If any polyps are removed, they are sent to a lab for pathology, with results coming back in about three days.
After the test
After your colonoscopy, you can resume normal activities quickly.
“You should plan on not going back to work that same day, but most people can go back to work the next day,” Dr. Baidoo said. “You can return to eating normally after your test as well.”
You may experience mild cramping and some blood in your stool. If these symptoms are severe, contact your physician.
The timing of your next colonoscopy is based on what your doctor saw during the test.
If you did not have any polyps or other areas of concern, you can typically wait 10 years before your next colonoscopy, Dr. Baidoo said. If there were polyps or you have other risk factors, you’ll need your next colonoscopy sooner.
Early screening saves lives
Dr. Baidoo said it’s important for patients to be proactive about colon cancer screening.
If you have an average risk of colon cancer, schedule your first colonoscopy when you turn 45. If you have risk factors like a strong family or personal history of colon cancer, a personal history of Inflammatory Bowel Disease, or previous radiation to the abdomen or pelvis, talk to your doctor about when and how often you’ll need a colonoscopy.
“Treatments work much better if a polyp is caught when it is pre-cancerous,” Dr. Baidoo noted. “The idea is to get rid of it before it develops into cancer.”