What’s your reason for not getting a colonoscopy? Most people have a few. Often, misunderstandings are the reason many people avoid or put off getting this important and potentially life-saving test. One of the best things about a colonoscopy is it can actually prevent colon cancer. So what’s to fear?

Here are some facts that just might make you decide to schedule that appointment. (Other methods of colon cancer screening are available, such as a stool test you take at home and send a sample to a lab for analysis afterward. You should know that if any abnormalities are detected, a colonoscopy will be recommended. Be sure to discuss your best option with your doctor.)

Most people who develop colon cancer do not have a family history.

Everyone is at risk of developing colon cancer. While family history and being over age 50 increases your risk, most people who develop colorectal cancer don't have a family history. African-Americans are at a higher risk, as are individuals who drink heavily or smoke. Routine screenings starting at age 45 are the best way to detect your level of risk. Talk with your doctor about your family and personal medical history for a recommendation on the right time to get screened.

The exam is not painful.

A colonoscopy is an exam of the entire colon with a colonoscope — a thin, flexible, lighted tube with a tiny camera on the end. After a day of preparation to clean out the colon, the exam itself takes only about 20 minutes. Just before the procedure, patients are given medicine to relax and prevent any discomfort. During the colonoscopy, air is pumped into the colon to keep it open for the physician to get the best view, so some people might experience a bit of gassiness. Although everyone tolerates procedures and discomfort differently, pain is rare, and most people don't remember the procedure. Routine colonoscopies are very safe.

Any small, precancerous polyps found during the colonoscopy can be removed right then and there.

Polyps are small, precancerous growths on the inside of the colon that grow over time into colon cancer. The main purpose of colonoscopy is to find and remove these precancerous polyps. Once removed, polyps no longer pose a threat. For polyps too large to be removed during a colonoscopy, doctors retrieve tissue samples that can be tested for their risk level.

Routine screening colonoscopies are covered by insurance.

The Affordable Care Act requires routine screenings to be covered by health insurance, as well as Medicare and Medicaid, for people over 45. If you’re at higher risk and need to be screened at a younger age, be sure to explore your coverage with your insurance company. Routine screenings play a large part in keeping you healthy along with a lifestyle of exercising regularly, not smoking and maintaining a healthy diet.

Early colon cancer typically has no symptoms.

Regular screenings are the best way to protect yourself. If your colonoscopy is normal (no polyps found), you don’t need another one for 10 years! Screenings can detect early cancers and remove precancerous polyps when they are easier to treat and there are more options. Waiting until you have symptoms can mean cancer has already advanced into a serious stage. Possible symptoms might include blood or changes in stool; frequent gas, pain or discomfort; a change in bowel habits; or unexplained weight loss. It is important to contact your provider if you experience these symptoms.

Colonoscopies help save lives.

Colonoscopy is currently the most powerful tool we have available to prevent death from colon cancer. Encouragingly, the number of colorectal cancer deaths in the United States is slowly decreasing overall, likely because screening colonoscopies for adults over 45 are on the rise.

Learn more about colonoscopies and other options for colon cancer screening

Colon Cancer Screening

About the Author

Daniel Stein, MD is a gastroenterologist who performs colonoscopies at Froedtert Hospital. He is also director of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) Program and an assistant professor with MCW. A native Milwaukeean, Dr. Stein has had a strong interest in better treatment for IBD since his mother was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when he was in high school.

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