No one looks forward to a colonoscopy, but it can save your life. If you’re in the midst of scheduling your first one, you probably have a lot of questions. You will want to prepare properly to get the most reliable results and help everything go smoothly.
It’s recommended to schedule your first colonoscopy by age 50; or earlier if colon cancer either runs in your family, or if you experience any of the risk factors listed below.
Although some fear is normal, a colonoscopy does not need to be something you dread. Instead, think of this exam as a valuable medical opportunity that our ancestors did not have access to. In fact, the first modern-day colonoscopy was not conducted until June of 1969… so consider yourself very fortunate!
Colorectal Cancer Risk Factors
Some of the best ways to naturally prevent colon cancer are to avoid smoking, eat healthy, and exercise regularly.
However, even the healthiest of individuals should not put off colonoscopy screening. This is an important, potentially life-saving exam, for both men and women alike.
According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), “A person with an average risk of colorectal cancer has about a 5% chance of developing colorectal cancer overall.”
The following risk factors may increase your risk of colorectal cancer:
- Gender – Historically, men have had a slightly higher chance of developing colon cancer compared to women. However, women are still at risk.
- Family History – If colon cancer runs in your family, you may have an increased risk. If this is the case, you should be screened more regularly (and perhaps before age 50).
- Age – As you age, colon cancer becomes more common. Over 90% of those diagnosed with colon cancer are age 50 and over.
- Smoking – Smoking cigarettes increases your risk of developing (and potentially dying from) colon cancer. Carcinogens are inhaled and transported to your colon.
- Lifestyle & Diet – Having a sedentary lifestyle and being overweight or obese can increase your risks. Diets high in saturated fats and processed foods should be avoided.
Types of Tests
The colonoscopy is just one of several exams which can be used to test the healthiness of your colon. Here’s a quick run-down on the three types:
- High Sensitive Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT) – Part of a routine medical exam, this test involves taking stool samples to detect blood in the stool. While it is a helpful screening test, it should not be used in place of a colonoscopy.
- Colonoscopy – This exam requires anesthesia and is usually only needed once every 5- 10 years, depending on your risk factors and the findings during your last colonoscopy. During this procedure, your doctor is able to remove polyps if needed.
- Flexible Sigmoidoscopy – Similar to a colonoscopy, your doctor uses a tiny scope with a light and camera to look through your rectum and part of your colon. This procedure does not allow for the removal of polyps, and it is not long enough to screen your entire colon for polyps or colon cancer.
Emptying the colon is essential to reducing potential complications during a colonoscopy. An empty colon will allow your doctor to notice smaller lesions or polyps than they might be able to detect otherwise.
This may mean inducing diarrhea while minimizing dehydration. Talk with your doctor about the best approach. Make sure he or she is aware of all medications and supplements you’re currently taking.
You will probably need to forgo solid foods for one to two days before your colonoscopy. Consume only water, clear broth, or light-colored vegetable juices. You may also be permitted gelatin and sports drinks; though anything colored red is not recommended, as the color might be mistaken for blood in the colon.
Allow several days before your procedure to make sure you have enough time to pick up anything needed from a pharmacy. Your doctor will likely prescribe a laxative solution. Follow the instructions carefully. Most of my patients over the years do not enjoy the taste! Try drinking the solution slowly and with small sips through a straw. Stay at home so you’re near a bathroom as needed. Your doctor may also recommend a Fleet’s enema.
Get enough rest before your procedure and allow plenty of time to get there. A stressful start to the day of the procedure is hard on both body and mind, which brings us to the following tips…
It’s normal to feel some level of anxiety preceding any medical procedure, and this one tends to make people particularly uncomfortable. According to Consumer Reports, fear bars many people from early detection of colon cancer. Whether you’re unsettled about the exam itself or the subsequent diagnosis, take a few deep breaths.
Handle this situation like you would any other stressful situation. Admit your feelings, to both your doctor and your loved ones. Don’t be afraid that your doctor will think less of you — this fear is common. If fear and anxiety become debilitating, you might consider speaking to a therapist.
According to the CDC, “Colonoscopy-specific barriers include fear or avoidance of bowel preparation, fear of having a tube inserted through the rectum, and fear of pain or discomfort.”
However, “Among cancers that affect both men and women, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death… Screening for colorectal cancer has been demonstrated to be effective in reducing the incidence of and mortality from the disease.”
In other words, remind yourself that going through with this exam could save your life.
Plan For Afterward
Make sure to have someone drive you home, as you will likely be feeling the effects of anesthesia. Talk to your doctor in advance about any follow-up or home care. You will need rest. Some people report mild cramping or discomfort. Knowing what to expect afterward will also help ease anxiety.
The American Cancer Society says, “Removing polyps can help prevent colon cancer from ever starting. And cancers found in an early stage, while they are small and before they have spread, are more easily treated.”
After completing the screening, congratulate yourself on taking such an important step in caring for your health!
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