Mention the word “colonoscopy” in a group of people and you can literally see the cringing begin – even though it’s a safe bet that many haven’t even experienced the procedure. What’s important to know is that the life-saving benefits of this screening test far outweigh any short-term unpleasantries (real or imagined).
Colorectal cancer is the second most-common cancer found in both men and women. It is a leading cause of cancer deaths, but is highly treatable when caught early and even preventable with the removal of precancerous polyps, or small growths. Due to low screening rates, however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that less than half of colorectal cancers are found early.
The colon, or large bowel, is the last section of your digestive system or gastrointestinal tract. It is a hollow tube about five feet long that starts at the small intestine and ends at the rectum and anus. Its purpose is to store unabsorbed food waste, water and other fluids until that waste can be eliminated from the body. A colonoscopy is used to visually examine your entire colon and rectum for abnormalities.
“The colon is one of the few places in the body where you can see a pre-cancer lesion and remove it,” says Daniel Peshka, DO, one of four gastroenterologists practicing at Holland Hospital. “A colonoscopy makes colon cancer over 90 percent preventable.
Doctors urge all men and women to follow the American Cancer Society’s screening guidelines, which include having a colonoscopy every 10 years beginning at age 50 (or earlier if you have a family history of colorectal cancer). Here’s what you can expect:
Before the procedure
Your colon must be clear of stool and fluids prior to the colonoscopy for the physician to get a clear view of the colon and rectal lining. The “prep” requires that you take a laxative and are on a clear liquid diet the entire day before the exam. You should also stop taking supplements, including iron, since this mineral can change the color of your colon lining. This prep period is often considered the worst part of the entire procedure.
On the examination day, you will be asked to fast during the four to six hours prior to the procedure.
After check-in, you will be taken to the procedure area in the Endoscopy Center, where a nurse will prepare you for the colonoscopy. To minimize discomfort and any anxiety, a mild sedative and/or pain medication is administered through an IV. Holland Hospital also offers music and aromatherapy to help you relax.
Most patients are asleep during the procedure. You will lie on your left side as the doctor inserts the colonoscope – a long, flexible tube with a fiber-optic light and a tiny video camera at its tip – into your rectum. Air is used to inflate the colon to help provide a better visualization of your colon. If polyps are found, the doctor will remove them at once. The entire procedure takes about a half hour.
Following the colonoscopy, you will be taken to a recovery area where a nurse will continue to check your vital signs. If you feel bloated, passing gas will make you feel more comfortable. You should not work or drive for the remainder of the day, and can resume a regular diet. Complications are rare, but see your doctor if you have persistent abdominal pain, bleeding or a fever.
If no abnormalities are found, your next colonoscopy is usually recommended in 10 years. If polyps were removed – depending on their size and number – a more frequent screening schedule will be followed.
Appointments for endoscopy procedures are usually arranged through your primary care doctor or gastroenterologist. For general questions, call Holland Hospital Endoscopy at (616) 394-3422.