Colon cancer is the second largest cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Yet the most effective method to detect colon cancer in its early stages, when it’s most treatable, is one that makes many folks squirm.
A colonoscopy, typically recommended for all men and women when they turn 50 years old, is the gold standard screening for colon cancer. During a colonoscopy, a long flexible tube is inserted into the rectum and along the length of the large intestine, or colon, to look for and remove polyps, growths in the colon that have the potential to turn into colon cancer over time.
“Colonoscopy saves lives. Everyone needs to have a colonoscopy once they’ve crossed age 50,” said Rajan Kochar, MD, medical director of Special Procedures at Memorial Medical Center and a gastroenterologist and director of advanced endoscopy at Springfield Clinic. “There is no reason to be concerned about this procedure. It’s a very low-risk test. The risk of complications is negligible. There is no discomfort or pain during or after the procedure.”
While people have some apprehensions about undergoing any medical procedure, Kochar understands that a colonoscopy tends to evoke more emotions because of concerns about modesty.
So what can you expect during your colonoscopy? First, your physician will set up an appointment for you to meet with a gastroenterologist who will perform the colonoscopy. At this appointment, he or she will answer all your questions, and your procedure will be scheduled for a later date.
You’ll receive the ingredients for bowel prep, mainly a strong laxative with lots of water. You’ll drink half of the mixture the evening before your colonoscopy to begin the process of cleaning out your colon. You will drink the remainder on the morning of the procedure to ensure the bowel is completely clean. By this time, you should have clear, watery stools. Your gastroenterologist will also instruct you to start a clear liquid diet—including water, Jell-O and broth—the day before the procedure.
You’ll usually be asked to arrive at the hospital about 90 minutes before the colonoscopy so you have time to be admitted, change clothes and get an IV. You’ll be in and out of the hospital on the same day. The actual procedure lasts an average of 30 minutes. You’ll receive anesthesia before the procedure, and you’ll sleep through the entire process. The gastroenterologist will insert the colonoscope until it reaches the beginning of your colon and will carefully examine and remove any polyps, which will be sent to a pathologist for examination.
When you wake up, you won’t remember the procedure and will have no pain. “The last thing you know is you’re drifting off to sleep. The next thing you know you’re waking up from the sedation,” Kochar said. “It’s like you’re taking a nap.”
Rajan Kochar, MD, MPH, is medical director of the Special Procedures Area at Memorial Medical Center and a gastroenterologist and director of advanced endoscopy at Springfield Clinic. He earned his medical degree from the University of Delhi-Maulana Azad Medical College in New Delhi, India, and completed his fellowships in gastroenterology and advanced therapeutic endoscopy at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston in Texas and Stanford University in California respectively.