A colonoscopy is an important tool used to screen for colorectal cancer, but some people are a little nervous at the prospect of getting one.
Planning for a Colonoscopy
To help ease your fears, learn how a colonoscopy can help save your life and what you can expect.
What is the purpose of a colonoscopy?
“During a colonoscopy, your provider will examine the inside of the entire colon and rectum. The purpose is to look for abnormal growths, ulcers and signs of potential cancer,” says Adrian Dyer, MD, a family medicine physician with Adventist Medical Group. “If you’ve already had cancer, your provider may perform a colonoscopy to look for new growths.”
Sometimes, providers also perform colonoscopies to investigate certain medical symptoms, such as:
- Abdominal pain
- Changes in bowel movements
- Rectal bleeding
- Unexplained weight loss
How often should I get a colonoscopy?
The American Cancer Society recommends that healthy people at average risk start getting screening colonoscopies at age 45. If your first screening colonoscopy is normal then most people are counseled to have a repeat colonoscopy every 10 years to check for new growths.
If you’re at greater risk for colon cancer, your provider might recommend that you get your first colonoscopy at an earlier age and repeat the screening more frequently. You may be at increased risk if you have ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease or a personal or family history of colorectal cancer. There are newer stool-based tests and CT scans that can be used as another screening method, but colonoscopies remain the gold standard for finding and detecting cancer early.
How to prepare for a colonoscopy
Before your colonoscopy, the provider will give you written instructions for bowel prep. This process cleans your bowel so that no stool remains, and the provider can clearly see the lining of your intestine.
Typically, you’ll follow a clear liquid diet for at least one day before the colonoscopy. Some examples of clear liquids are:
- Bouillon or broth
- Plain coffee or tea
- Sports drinks
- Light-colored fruit juice, such as apple or white grape juice
Avoid all red, blue and purple drinks as well as gelatins.
The day before your procedure, your provider may prescribe a special laxative - a pill, liquid, or powder that you mix and drink with large amounts of water. Some doctors may also prescribe an enema to flush out the colon.
Can I continue taking my medications?
Carefully follow your provider’s instructions about your current medications. You may need to stop taking aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen or other blood-thinning medications for several days before the test. You may also need to stop taking iron pills which cause dark stools and make it difficult for the provider to see inside your colon.
Where will my colonoscopy take place? And how long will it last?
Your procedure most likely will take place at an outpatient center. In some cases, you may have to visit a hospital, but the procedure will still be done as an outpatient. Oftentimes the colonoscopy takes only 30 to 60 minutes, but you’ll be there a little longer as the nurses care for you before and after the procedure.
What happens during the colonoscopy?
First, your providers will give you a light sedative, anesthesia or pain medication. You won’t be aware of what’s happening during the procedure, and you won’t feel pain. They will monitor your vital signs to keep you comfortable.
To perform your colonoscopy, the provider uses a flexible tube used to detect polyps that may be easily removed during the procedure and sent to a lab to check for cancer.
“It’s not unusual to find polyps in the colon. In some cases, they’re harmless,” says Dr. Dyer. “However, since colon cancer often begins as a polyp, we remove the polyps before they have a chance to become cancerous. If we see abnormal tissue, the sample is sent to be examined for cancerous signs under a microscope.”
What you can expect after the colonoscopy
After your colonoscopy, you’ll probably stay at the hospital or procedure center for an hour or two. During that time:
- Your nurses will monitor you as the anesthesia wears off.
- Initially, you may experience minor cramping in your abdomen and pass gas. Some people may also feel a little bloated which is normal.
- When you’re awake, your provider may explain what was found during your procedure or discuss it in clinic afterwards.
Before you go home, the nurses will give you instructions about how to care for yourself, which include:
- Drink lots of liquids and eat light, nutritious foods for the rest of the day.
- For safety’s sake, no driving for 24 hours after the procedure. It takes time for the sedatives and anesthesia to wear off completely. Make sure to designate someone to drive you home.
- Do not plan to work or make important legal decisions the rest of the day.
If the provider removed polyps or abnormal tissue, you’ll get a follow-up call within the next week or so to discuss biopsy results.
Many people say their colonoscopy was not nearly as uncomfortable as they had initially feared. Additionally, they have some peace of mind knowing that they’ve done what they can to check for colon cancer. Talk to your primary care physician about your risk and about when colorectal cancer screening is right for you. If you don’t have doctor, Adventist Medical Group can help.
To learn your risk for colorectal cancer, take our free online risk assessment.