Don’t Let Fear Get in the Way of Your Health: Get a Colonoscopy

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Colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer in both men and women in the United States and the second most common cause of death – but it’s also one of the most preventable cancers. Regular screenings, such as a colonoscopy, can be the difference between a minor inconvenience and a major life-threatening disease.

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month and the perfect time to learn about potential screenings that can save your life.

We spoke with Raymond Sandler, MD, a gastroenterologist, and director of endoscopy at Jackson North Medical Center, to find out when you should get screened, what you can expect during a colonoscopy, and worrisome symptoms that you should bring to your doctor’s attention right away.

Why are colonoscopies and other colorectal screenings important?

Colon cancer is very treatable if it is found early. However, the longer the cancer grows and spreads, the more complications it can cause. That is why we stress the importance of colorectal screenings, so we can detect the cancer as early as possible when it is treatable and/or can be removed.

In addition, many patients do not experience any symptoms of colon cancer until it has progressed, and about 75 percent of patients diagnosed with colon cancer had no family history of the disease.

Therefore, often the only way to detect colon cancer early is through screenings, such as a colonoscopy.

Who should get a colonoscopy or other colorectal screening?  

It’s recommended to have your first colonoscopy done around the age of 45. If no polyps are found during the test, your doctor will ask you to come back in 10 years for a repeat exam.

It’s important to talk to your doctor about your family history, symptoms, and overall health, as those factors may impact when they recommend your first screening.

Colonoscopies are one of the most common screening tests for colon cancer, but often people are nervous about undergoing the process. What can patients expect?

Colonoscopies remain the gold standard for colon cancer prevention. All patients are sedated before the procedure.

During a colonoscopy, your doctor will insert a flexible instrument with a camera through the anus to examine the colon. Biopsies can be taken from the instrument, and if needed, polyps or other types of abnormal tissue can be removed as well.

Most people do not experience any discomfort or pain, and the entire procedure takes only about 30 minutes. When patients wake up, they may experience some grogginess as a side effect of the sedative.

The most challenging part of the procedure is preparing for it. To get a good look at the colon, it must be free of solid matter. This means for one to three days before the colonoscopy, patients must follow a low fiber or clear-liquid diet, which can include apple juice, chicken broth, beef broth or bouillon, lemon-lime soda, lemonade, sports drink, and water.

What happens if something is found during a routine colonoscopy?

If a small polyp is found, the doctor will probably remove it. If the doctor sees a large polyp, a tumor, or any abnormality, a biopsy will be performed and sent to a lab to be checked for cancer or pre-cancer cells.

If colon cancer is found, it is treated through surgery to remove the cancer, if possible, chemotherapy and radiation, or some combination of the three.

What symptoms are a sign that a patient should see their doctor right away?

People with colon cancer often do not experience symptoms. However, if at any time you have rectal bleeding, unexplained abdominal pain, constipation, or change in bowel habits, it’s important to see your doctor.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Just do it. I perform about 1,500 colonoscopies a year and have seen these tests save lives. That’s why we passionately encourage patients to get checked regularly. With the risks due to the pandemic waning, we want people who have put off these preventive tests to make their health a priority and get tested. It could save your life.

For more information or to schedule an appointment, please call the Jackson North Multispecialty Center at 305-654-6850.