When Do I Need to Get a Colonoscopy?
A Patient's Guide to Getting Their First Colorectal Cancer Screening
Colon Cancer Screenings Can Be Life Saving. Is It Time for Yours?
Over 140,000 new cases of colorectal cancer are diagnosed each year, making it the third most common type of cancer and the second-leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States. However, when detected in its early stages, colon cancer is very treatable. That's why it's important to have regular colon cancer screenings — even when you have no symptoms.
With colon cancer diagnoses under age 50 on the rise, it’s more important than ever to address your concerns and get your screenings on time. A colonoscopy is the most effective form of colon cancer screening that is available to patients today. Unlike other forms of cancer screenings which can only detect a problem, colorectal screening with a colonoscopy can prevent colon cancer by allowing doctors to detect and remove precancerous lesions — or polyps — during the examination.
With colon cancer being so prominent yet preventable through colonoscopies, you may be wondering when you should schedule an appointment with a colonoscopy doctor. At Northeastern Gastroenterology Associates, our team of doctors and gastroenterology specialists are committed to spreading awareness about colorectal cancer and the importance of colon cancer screenings. If you haven’t had a colonoscopy before, we know how daunting the procedure can seem at first. Fortunately, we put together a guide to help you better understand the procedure and determine when you’ll need to schedule your colonoscopy with your doctor.
Colon Cancer by the Numbers
Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in men and women combined in the U.S.
It is estimated that over 140,000 new cases of colorectal cancer are diagnosed in the United States each year.
Colon cancer is the third most common type of cancer that is diagnosed in men and women combined in the U.S.
There are now more than 1.5 million survivors of colorectal cancer in the US thanks to colon cancer screenings.
Cancer is a disease in which cells in the body grow out of control. When cancer develops in the colon or rectum, it is referred to as colorectal cancer. Most colorectal cancers start as a growth on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. Some of these growths, often referred to as polyps, can turn into cancer over time. When cancer forms in a polyp, it can grow into the wall of the colon or rectum over time. The wall of the colon and rectum is made up of many layers, colorectal cancer starts in the innermost layer and can spread outward through some or all of the other layers.
When cancer cells have developed in the wall, they can spread further into blood vessels or lymph vessels. From there, they can travel to nearby lymph nodes or to distant parts of the body. For this reason, it is important to get a colon cancer screening when you reach a certain age or face risk factors that may increase your chances of colorectal cancer.
Why A Colonoscopy?
A colonoscopy can be life-saving. How? It’s one of the few colon cancer screening procedures that can effectively detect precancerous lesions and abnormalities in the colon and rectum before they spread further. Colon polyps are at a high risk for turning into cancer if they are not detected and removed. During a colonoscopy, these polyps can be discovered and removed on the spot — essentially preventing cancer or a long road of potential treatments ahead. When a colon polyp is removed before it turns into cancer, further treatment generally isn’t needed — no surgery, no chemotherapy, no ostomy.
The procedure is used to help gastroenterology specialists examine the inside lining of the colon, which is where colon cancer starts. During a colonoscopy, a long, narrow, flexible tube with an HD camera at the end is used to evaluate the rectum and colon. The doctor can take tissue samples or remove small polyps for further examination, if necessary, during the procedure. As a nation, we could see a significant decline in colon cancer diagnoses if more people went for on-time colonoscopies.
The Benefits of a Colonoscopy
- An effective option for early detection of colorectal cancers
- Used to detect and remove polyps
- Can diagnose other digestive complications patients are experiencing
- Often eliminates the need for potential treatments in the future
- Ultimately can be life-saving for both men and women
When Is a Colonoscopy Needed?
It is recommended that both men and women ages 50 and older should be screened for colorectal cancer — a majority of colon cancer cases come from this specific demographic. That said, the recent rise in colon cancer cases among younger men and women is worrisome and speaks to the importance of getting an early colonoscopy screening for those who have an above-average risk of developing the disease — and knowing what symptoms should send you to the doctor’s office.
Reasons to Schedule a Colonoscopy Earlier
You Have a Family History of Colorectal Cancer
If you have family members that have been diagnosed with colon cancer or have had polyps detected it is worth getting a screening earlier than what is recommended for those that are at average risk. The lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is approximately 6%. While the percentage is relatively low, the risk of developing colon cancer is doubled if a family member discovered polyps or were diagnosed with colon cancer after age 50. This lifetime risk is increased even further if first degree members of your family were diagnosed at an earlier age or if multiple first degree relatives were diagnosed.
When you should get your first colonoscopy is dependent on your family history with cancer, especially colon cancer. To increase the chances of catching and preventing colon cancer early, those with a family history of cancer should consider screening between ages 40 and 45.
You Have Inflammatory Bowel Disease
People with IBD in their colon can be at a slightly higher risk of developing colon cancer. Inflammation of the colon can cause continuous turnover of cells in the intestinal lining, which increases the risk of abnormalities that may lead to cancer. While the vast majority of patients with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis aren’t likely to develop colorectal cancer, it is important to discuss the risks with a gastroenterology specialist.
Doctors suggest that patients with Crohn's disease begin screening 15 years after initial diagnosis or at age 50, whichever comes first. Patients with ulcerative colitis should begin screening eight years after the initial diagnosis or at age 50, whichever comes first. Whether you’re experiencing Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis, it’s best to consult your doctor about the best colon cancer screening schedule for your particular situation.
You Experience Gastrointestinal Symptoms
If you experience certain gastrointestinal issues and symptoms regularly, your doctor may recommend getting a colonoscopy at a early age compared to someone that is at average risk — meaning they don’t experience gastrointestinal symptoms or have a family history of colorectal cancer. While many of the symptoms of colorectal cancer can also be caused by something that isn’t cancer, such as infection, hemorrhoids, IBS, or IBD, a colonoscopy can help doctors pinpoint the cause of these symptoms and provide treatment, if needed.
Pay attention to your body and talk to a colonoscopy doctor about scheduling a screening if you’re experiencing any of the following gastrointestinal symptoms:
Severe abdominal pain
Changes in bowel movements
5 Things You Should Know About Colonoscopies
If you have never had a colonoscopy before, you may be anxious of the idea of the procedure itself. The good news is, you’re not alone. Many people find colorectal cancer screenings intimidating because of the procedure involved. On top of that, a lot of misinformation gets spread about what to expect before, during, and after the life-saving procedure. Contrary to what most people think, here are some things you should know about colonoscopy screenings.
1. The Procedure Is Not Painful
Some people are anxious about getting a colonoscopy for the first time, but very few patients actually experience pain or discomfort during the procedure. Before the procedure, patients are lightly sedated to help them feel relaxed and comfortable. No pain is experienced during the procedure — the most common symptom patients experience following a colonoscopy is bloating.
2. The Procedure Is Safe
A colonoscopy is a minimally invasive procedure, so it does carry little risk — mostly due to the anesthesia used to relax the patient undergoing the procedure. For most patients, however, the risks associated with a colonoscopy are relatively low. The procedure is performed in a closely monitored environment in which gastroenterology and anesthesiology teams care for the patient before, during, and after the procedure. Doctors also closely review the medical history of patients prior to undergoing a colonoscopy to ensure any risks are minimized.
3. The Procedure Is Quick
While it is recommended that you take the entire day off of work on the day of the procedure, a colonoscopy is a relatively quick procedure. In most cases, the procedure lasts around 30 minutes. If polyps are found and need to be removed, it may take longer. Once the procedure is finished and the sedation wears off, patients get dressed and meet with their gastroenterologist, who will review the results of the procedure.
4. Colonoscopy Prep Isn’t That Bad
You have probably heard about the unpleasantness of colonoscopy preparation. While it is true that colonoscopy prep instructions in the past were down-right awful, significant strides have been made to improve and refine what patients need to do to prepare for the procedure. Patients are asked to consume a bowel preprepatory to help clear the bowel before the examination. Many colonoscopy doctors will suggest following a split preparation method, which involves drinking half of the bowel prep the night before your procedure and the other half the morning of.
5. You’re Not Necessarily Too Young for a Colonoscopy
While guidelines call for colorectal cancer screenings starting at age 50 for those at average risk, patients can get a colonoscopy before they reach that milestone, especially if they are at an increased risk. Remember, the risks of developing colorectal cancer are increased if you have a family history of colon cancer, have been diagnosed with IBD, or if you have been experiencing gastrointestinal issues, among other factors. If you are at an increased risk of colon cancer, you’ll want to be screened earlier, typically at age 40. Research has shown a sharp rise in colorectal cancer rates among adults in their 20s and 30s, so it's better to get tested sooner rather than later.
Again, the most important thing to remember about a colonoscopy is that it can save your life. Many patients that end up delaying a colonoscopy often end up later regretting not getting the quick and painless procedure done at a younger age. You don’t have to feel anxious, your gastroenterology specialists will go the necessary lengths to ensure your comfort. On-time screenings are the most effective way for colonoscopy doctors to identify and remove multiple polyps, successfully preventing the progression of colorectal cancer in these patients.
Is It Time to Schedule a Colonoscopy Screening?
While having a colonoscopy may not be your idea of a fun time, the procedure is an important part of staying healthy, especially as you get older. Scheduling a colonoscopy early — ideally, as soon as you’re eligible — means polyps and potential cancer can be caught early, when treatment is most effective.
Are you wondering if it’s time to schedule a colorectal cancer screening? Talk with your doctor. Based on your medical history, other risk factors and overall health, your doctor will let you know if a colonoscopy procedure is right for you.
If your primary care physician recommends getting a colonoscopy, it's important to find the best colonoscopy doctors to trust for your examination. At Northeastern Gastroenterology Associates, we’re the trusted gastroenterology office in Pennsylvania for patients in need of a colonoscopy. Our gastroenterology specialists have years of experience performing colon cancer screenings, helping patients detect and treat early signs of colorectal cancer. To schedule your colorectal cancer screening, contact our office in Honesdale or request an appointment by filling out the form below!