Do you know how common colon cancer is in the world? It is the third most common cancer in men and the second most common cancer in women worldwide, according to healthcare experts. In the US, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer after lung cancer. It's the second leading cause of cancer death in the US after lung cancer.
However, the good news is that colon cancer is one of the only types of cancer that we can prevent thanks to the colonoscopy procedure.
But what is a colonoscopy? You might have heard about it in negative terms, but we're here to clear up any misconceptions about the procedure that you might have.
What is a Colonoscopy?
It is an invasive procedure that carries a negative connotation because of the prepping steps that an individual needs to take prior to the procedure and the stigma. This screening test allows a gastroenterologist (GI doctor) to look at the lining of your entire colon (large intestine) with a tiny camera/scope. The purpose of this test is to detect abnormalities that can be the source of cancer such as polyps and adenomas (small tumors). The convenience of this test is that it detects malignant lesions while it allows the doctor to remove them during the same intervention. The colonoscopy is also considered in the medical literature as the gold standard tool of screening for colorectal cancer due to its high sensitivity and specificity. This is a safe yet expensive test that is covered by most health plans.
A colonoscopy doesn't just detect colon cancer; it can also detect:
- inflammatory bowel disease
When Do You Need a Colonoscopy?
Routine - If you are 50 years old, then you are a candidate for a colonoscopy, then every 10 years the procedure is repeated. Also, your doctor will order occult blood testing at age 50, then yearly.
If you have a single-family member with colon cancer, then colonoscopy starts at age 40 or 10 years earlier than the age at which the family member contracted cancer, whichever is earlier, then every 10 years.
If there is Hereditary NonPolyposis Colorectal Cancer (HNPCC) in the family, meaning three family members, two generations, one premature (<50 y.o) then colonoscopy starts at age 25, then every 1-2 years.
If there is Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP) in the family, then screening with sigmoidoscopy starts at age 12, then every 1-2 years.
If you have symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis, then you will need a colonoscopy since both conditions lead to colon cancer. Screening colonoscopy should start every 1-2 years after 8-10 years of colonic involvement.
Age isn't the only factor in whether you should have a colonoscopy. If you've experienced any change in bowel movements or felt pain or bleeding, then you should speak with your doctor and see what they suggest.
Colon Cancer Can Happen Randomly
Colon cancer is due to mutations in genes that control the growth of cells in the colon. Most mutations happen randomly over a lifetime. Hence, no matter what your family history may be or your own personal history of IBD, you should always be aware of the potential colon cancer symptoms. Symptoms that you should watch out for include black stools, weight loss, bloody stools, bowel movement changes, and abdominal pain. See your doctor immediately if you experience any of these symptoms.
You Might Need It Earlier
While guidelines suggest that colon cancer screening starts at age 50 for people at average risk, and at age 40 for people at higher risk, you should consider having it done earlier if there is a family history.
According to the newest research coming out of the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer rates are rising among adults in their 20-30s. If you were born in the 1990s, then you're statistically at a double risk of colon cancer (and quadruple for rectal cancer) compared to someone who was born in the 1950s.
Does Colon Cancer Run in Your Family?
Some people inherit the gene mutation from a parent that increase their risk of certain cancers. In people who inherit such a mutation, this can sometimes lead to cancer earlier in life than would normally be expected.
For example, Lynch Syndrome (caused by DNA mismatch repair gene mutations), which increases the risk of colorectal, ovarian, endometrial, and some other cancers.
Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (caused by APC gene mutation), which increases the risk of colorectal cancer.
If your parent or sibling has been diagnosed with colon cancer before the age of 65, then you should get a colonoscopy ten years before they were diagnosed. So if your parent was 40 when they were diagnosed, then you should get a colonoscopy when you're 30.
Also, if you have Crohn's disease, inflammatory bowel disease, or colitis, then you'll need to have a screening done before age 50.
Remember the following reasons why getting a colonoscopy is a good idea:
It Doesn't Hurt
While the scope will go where you'd expect, it won't hurt at all! In fact, you shouldn't feel anything at all. You'll receive monitored anesthesia, as well as sedative medication, pushed through an IV. This combination will allow for a painless experience. After the procedure is over, you may have some potent flatulence for an hour or two, but this is normal and isn't painful.
Colonoscopy Prep Has Seen Improvement in Recent Years
When people think about how bad colonoscopy prep is, they are often thinking of how it used to be. But these days, it's much easier. You prep by taking a laxative the night before, the effects of which will last for only a couple of hours. The laxative will help flush the fecal matter out of your system. The following morning you'll take the last laxative, which will flush out the remainder. And that's it! That's all you have to do to prepare for your painless colonoscopy.
The procedure itself can be as short as 15 minutes. However, you should take the rest of the day off to recover from the sedation.
Colonoscopy Is the Most Effective Form of Screening for Colon Cancer
A colonoscopy has benefits over other examination methods. Assuming that the colonoscopy results were normal, another colonoscopy will often need to be done again ten years later. Other screening methods, such as the sigmoidoscopy, must be done every five years. Also, with other methods, if a cancerous polyp is found, then a colonoscopy must be done afterward. Therefore you should just start with a colonoscopy.
A Colonoscopy Can Detect Other Conditions
A colonoscopy can detect intestinal inflammatory diseases. If these diseases are detected early, the damage they cause can be reduced. The potential damage that can be reduced includes intestinal pain and blockages (that will require surgery), colon bleeding and scarring, and malnourishment. Furthermore, these damages can increase the likelihood of colorectal cancer.
Diverticulosis is another condition that's the result of pockets forming on the inner lining of the colon. About half of all people over age 60 have it, and it's common among people over 40 as well. Discovering diverticulosis early can give doctors the ability to suggest changes in your eating habits. For example, they might suggest that you switch over to a high-fiber diet, which would prevent some of the painful symptoms associated with diverticulosis.
There's No Shame in Having a Colonoscopy
Typically colonoscopies are done at endoscopy centers. All of the patients in these centers have gastrointestinal concerns, which means that you won't be alone.
While you personally might feel embarrassed about what's going to happen, for the rest of the staff, it's just regular and routine work, so you shouldn't worry at all.
The anesthesia will make you feel relaxed, and it will be over in the blink of an eye. And as we said earlier, it will be virtually pain-free.
The Most Important Reason: It Could Save Your Life
Colonoscopies have saved many lives. According to a study from the New England Journal of Medicine, evidence suggested that removing cancer-causing polyps that were detected during colonoscopies reduced the chance of death caused by colon cancer by 53%.
So, this quick, safe, and easy procedure really can save your life.