What Is A Colonoscopy And Why Is It Important?

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. It’s the perfect opportunity to find out what you should know about colorectal cancer, the third most common type of cancer in men and women.

A great place to start is understanding the screening techniques and your personal screening needs.  Colorectal cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancer thanks to screening tools, such as the colonoscopy. As a nurse practitioner in the gastrointestinal clinic at Roswell Park, I often work with patients who are having a colonoscopy. I can tell you, even from personal experience, that the procedure is not as bad as many assume.

What is a Colonoscopy?

A colonoscopy, although not the only screening option, is the most common and best method for finding problems along the surface of the colon.  It involves the insertion of a narrow tube through the rectum and throughout the entire large intestine. It allows your medical team to look for any abnormalities and even remove pre-cancerous polyps, before they turn in to cancer. 

A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine provides strong scientific evidence that colonoscopy does indeed help save lives. In the study, the death rate from colorectal cancer was cut by more than 50% in patients who had polyps removed during a colonoscopy.

Preparation is Vital

A lot of patients are concerned about the preparation required before a colonoscopy. The prep, which is meant to clean out your bowel, consists of sticking to a clear liquid diet and taking certain medications the day before your procedure. You will receive detailed instructions on exactly how to do the prep. Following these instructions is essential to a thorough and accurate colonoscopy.

Many patients express concerns about getting sick from the prep. Many times, those who do experience sickness have become dehydrated.  I advise patients to make sure they drink enough fluids, in addition to those required with the prep, that contain glucose and electrolytes, such as apple juice and ginger ale. However, it’s important that you only drink clear fluids before your colonoscopy. Again, you will get detailed instructions on exactly what you should and should not drink.  

Screening Guidelines

Screening guidelines for colorectal cancer recommend screening once every ten years, starting at age 50 if you are at average risk level. However, if you have risk factors, such as a family history of colorectal cancer, it’s very important that you speak with your doctor about your personal screening needs. Those with known risk factors may be advised to start screening at a younger age and/or more frequently.  You may also need to be screened more frequently if polyps or other abnormalities are found during a colonoscopy.

Learn more about what to expect during a colonoscopy