What is colonoscopy?
Colonoscopy lets a doctor closely see the inside of the entire colon and rectum. The doctor is looking for polyps which could be an early sign of cancer. Polyps are small growths that over time can become cancer.
The doctor uses a thin (about the thickness of a finger), flexible, hollow, lighted tube that has a tiny video camera on the end. This tube is called a colonoscope (ko-LAHN-uh-SCOPE). The colonoscope is gently eased inside the colon and sends pictures to a TV screen. Small amounts of air are pumped into the colon to keep it open and let the doctor see clearly.
The exam itself takes about 30 minutes. You’ll probably be given medicine to help you relax and sleep while it’s done. You’ll need to plan on having someone go with you for this test so they can take you home afterwards.
Your health care provider decides how often you need this test, usually once every 10 years, unless you’re at a higher risk for colon cancer. It’s important that you talk with your provider to understand your risk for colon cancer, the guidelines you should follow for testing, and whether you need to start having the tests at age 50 or earlier.
Will a colonoscopy hurt?
Most people don’t find these exams painful. Still, some people have more discomfort than others. You’re given medicine to make you sleep through a colonoscopy, so you don’t feel anything.
During test, air is pumped into the cleaned-out colon to keep it open so that doctors can get the best pictures. The air pressure may cause some discomfort and cramping in your lower belly. You’ll feel better after the air leaves your colon.
As with most medical tests, complications are possible. Some can be serious – for instance, bleeding and puncture of the colon – but they’re rare. Make sure you understand how these tests work, how you can expect to feel during and after the test, and how to watch for possible problems that could come up afterward.
Who will do the exam?
Colonoscopy is almost always done by a doctor, usually a gastroenterologist (a doctor whose specialty is the digestive tract) or a surgeon.
Will I be in a private room?
Colonoscopy is done in a private area; it may be a hospital outpatient department, a clinic, an ambulatory surgery center, or a doctor’s office. Privacy is very important. If you have concerns, talk with the doctor about where and how the test will be done.
How do I get ready for a colonoscopy?
Many people consider the bowel preparation (often called the bowel prep) the worst part of these tests. For the doctor to see your insides clearly and get good pictures, your colon needs to be as cleaned out as possible.
You might be told to avoid certain foods and medicines and might be put on a clear liquid diet for a day or so before these tests. You’ll take very strong laxatives and might also need enemas to clean out your colon. If you can choose a day for your exam, pick one that will make it easy for you to be at home the day or evening before the test, when you do the bowel prep.
You’ll get instructions from your provider’s office ahead of time. Read them carefully since you may need to buy certain supplies (maybe clear liquids, like soups and gelatin) and get laxatives or enemas. If any of the instructions are not clear or you don’t understand them, call the office and go over them step-by-step. Also be sure to talk about any concerns you might have about the bowel prep.
Preparing for colonoscopy makes you to go the bathroom a lot! As soon as you take the laxatives, you’ll need to stay close to a bathroom. They usually start working pretty quickly and your stool may become liquid. They might still be working the next morning when you go for your colonoscopy appointment. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for a bathroom when you get there. People have to ask this all the time and the staff is used to it.
Why are the tests so important?
Colorectal cancer screening helps people stay well and saves lives. Regular colorectal cancer testing is one of the most successful ways to prevent colorectal cancer or find it early, when it’s small and easier to treat.
Removing polyps can help prevent colorectal cancer from ever starting. And cancers found in an early stage, while they are small and before they have spread, are easier to treat. Most people whose colon cancer is found and treated early will be alive 5 years later. And many will live a normal life span.
But all too often people don’t get any of these screening tests. Then the cancer can grow and spread without being noticed. Early on, colorectal cancer doesn’t usually cause any noticeable symptoms. In most cases, by the time people do have symptoms the cancer is advanced and very hard to treat.
Regular screening is the best way to find colon and rectal cancers in the early stages.