Thinking about a colonoscopy may make you uncomfortable, and maybe even a little worried — especially if you have never had one before. But a colonoscopy is a relatively simple procedure that may help save your life by identifying the early signs of colorectal cancer.
While you may have delayed some medical visits because of the pandemic, you can rest assured that health care providers have worked hard to help ensure that procedures like colonoscopies are conducted safely. Putting screenings off, in contrast, may be dangerous: Delayed cancer screenings during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic are estimated to result in 10,000 excess colorectal and breast cancer deaths.
Why screening is important
It’s a good reminder that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends adults age 50 to 75 be screened for colorectal cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. — and early in the disease, there are often no symptoms.
“Too often, when people begin experiencing symptoms of colorectal cancer, the disease has advanced to a point where it’s much more difficult to treat,” said Dr. Philip Painter, chief medical officer, UnitedHealthcare Medicare and Retirement. “That’s why it’s so important to get screened at age 50 if you have no risk factors — and earlier, if you do.”
People who are longtime smokers, overweight, physically inactive and those with a family history of colorectal cancer in a parent, sibling or child are at an increased risk.
Nearly 148,000 new cases of colorectal cancer were expected to be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2020. About 80,000 of those cases were estimated to be among adults 65 and older. And yet only 61% of Americans age 50 and older have had a colonoscopy.
You may be asked to begin a procedure to help prepare the bowel and colon for examination.
Your doctor will likely instruct you to cut out fiber from your diet two days before your colonoscopy. One day before, you will eat no solid foods, and no liquids that are orange or red. You may consume clear juices, gelatins, popsicles, clear broth and coffee or tea without creamer. The evening or morning before your exam, you will drink a liquid that will induce bowel movements.
You may find that the preparation for a colonoscopy is not as unpleasant as you have heard. In recent years, colon-cleansing solutions have become better tasting, and lower amounts of the laxative solution are sometimes used.
The procedure itself is not lengthy — typically, about 30 to 60 minutes. Sedation is usually recommended, and you may feel slight cramping during the exam, but many may feel nothing at all.
If your results are negative, doctors typically recommend another colonoscopy in 10 years.
“Taking preventive steps like getting your colonoscopy can literally save your life,” Dr. Painter said. “If you are over 50 and have not yet had the test, it’s best to get that scheduled as soon as possible.”
Still have questions or concerns? Talk to your health care team. They are there to help.