Colonoscopies 101

Why they’re important, why it might be time to get one, and why they’re easier than you might think


Remember the good old days? Did you have a favorite disco outfit? Did you ever get dropped off to meet your friends at the roller rink? Or spend hours by the radio in high school during the 80s, waiting to record your favorite songs for a new mixtape?  If you did, then it’s probably time to think about scheduling a routine colonoscopy screening. According to the American Cancer Society, those at average risk for colon cancer should start getting screened at age 45. Those at higher than average risk may need to begin screening prior to age 45, and more frequently and/or with specific tests.

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women, excluding skin cancers. And while the majority of these cases occur in people 50 and older, the disease can happen to men and women at any age.

The good news is that the overall incidence of, and death rates associated with, colorectal cancers have been on the decline for more than a decade, thanks in large part to effective colonoscopy screenings that can detect the disease in its early stages.

“Colonoscopies are vital to improving our ability to find colorectal cancer quickly and early, which makes the disease much easier to treat,” says Mayurathan Kesavan, MD, Conemaugh Physician Group - Gastroenterology. “This simple procedure also aids in prevention, as we have the ability to identify and remove colorectal polyps before they become cancerous in the first place.”

Another reason that colonoscopies are so important is because the early stages of colon cancer often do not come with symptoms. Still, you should see your doctor if you have any of these warning signs:

  • Bleeding from the rectum;
  • Blood in the stool or in the toilet after a bowel movement;
  • Change in your bowel habits, including diarrhea or constipation or a change in the consistency of your stool;
  • Persistent cramping or discomfort in the lower abdomen;
  • An urge to have a bowel movement when the bowel is empty;
  • Constipation or diarrhea that lasts for more than a few days;
  • Decreased appetite;
  • Nausea or vomiting; and
  • Unintentional weight loss.

While these symptoms can also be indicative of other health conditions, your doctor can help you get to the root of the issue and determine the underlying cause.

Fortunately, colonoscopies are an easier procedure than many people realize. You will likely be given pain medication and a sedative shortly before to minimize discomfort, and the procedure typically takes approximately 30 minutes. During that time, any polyps found will be removed by the doctor and tissue samples will be sent for a biopsy.

“We recommend that everyone talk to their doctor about their colorectal cancer risks and discuss when a colonoscopy could be right for them,” said Dr. Kesavan. “The benefits can be tremendous – and even life-saving.”

You can also be proactive when it comes to prevention in other ways. Living a healthy lifestyle that includes daily exercise, a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting your alcohol intake and eliminating smoking can reduce your risk for colorectal and many other forms of cancer. Knowing your family’s medical history is also important, as a history of the disease in your immediate family puts you at a higher risk.

Talk with your primary care physician about colonoscopy screening, or call 800.424.DOCS to find a physician.