Colonoscopy Saves Lives: How To Prepare And What To Expect

doctor and patient

Colonoscopy is known in the medical field as the gold standard for preventing colorectal cancer. Yet because of the lack of education and common misconceptions about pain, this procedure remains underused by Americans.

Over 4 million people in the US have yearly colonoscopies to avoid colon cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 70 percent of all deaths from the disease could be prevented if colonoscopy or other tests were used to remove cancer polyps at its early stages. The society has also announced new changes to its guidelines regarding colorectal cancer screening, urging everyone to start getting tested at age 45 rather than 50.

What Happens During a Colonoscopy?

A specialist with experience in performing colonoscopies will administer the procedure that will last approximately 30 to 60 minutes. You will be given medications into your vein to help you feel drowsy and relaxed. The doctor will then ask you to lie on your left side on the examining table.

The practitioner will insert the colonoscope in the rectum and through the other end of the large intestine. This flexible instrument, which is about ½-inch in diameter, will allow the specialist to examine the lining of your colon for abnormalities.

You may feel mild cramping during the procedure. Simply take several slow, deep breaths to reduce the cramping. When it’s done, the scope will be withdrawn slowly. If the physician sees something that may be out of the ordinary, he or she may take a few tissue samples for analysis. If there are identified growths or polyps, the practitioner can remove them as well. This is what makes colonoscopy such a reliable screening test and it also takes out possible cancerous polyps without having the patient go through a major operation.

When You Need It And When You Don’t

Getting screened with a colonoscopy once every five or 10 years is usually not necessary. If the test doesn’t find polyps that may eventually turn into cancer (called adenomas), then your chance of developing the disease is slim for the next 10 years.

Colonoscopy is currently the most accurate test for colon cancer and it misses very few adenomas. Even if one or two tiny, low-risk polyps are taken out, cancer is unlikely to grow for at least another five years. That’s why most people only need to take the test just once a decade and repeating it sooner provides little benefit. Only those who have bigger, more serious polyps may need it more often than every five years.

Is The Preparation Really That Bad?

You may have heard that preparation is the worst part of getting a colonoscopy, but that’s only because many people fear the actual procedure. Since you will be sedated during the exam, there is not much pain to feel and it will be over before you know it. The preparation required prior to a colonoscopy, however, is not really what people consider as fun.

It is recommended to only take clear liquids the day before the test and to swallow a large quantity of laxative to clean out the large intestine. Dr. David Greenwald, director of clinical gastroenterology and endoscopy at Mount Sinai Hospital, says that these steps aren’t as bad as people expect. The dose is split into two and is taken many hours apart. It’s also a small effort compared to the many benefits you can get.

Getting Your Results

Most of the time, the doctor can give you your results right after the exam. You might feel anxious about the possibility of hearing a negative result, but the good news is, colonoscopy detects and removes polyps before they turn into cancer. You should receive a copy of the photos and written report, as well as a follow-up letter notifying your next appointment.

If you don’t have any risk factors, like a family or personal history of cancer or any serious polyps, and your screening test provides normal results, then your next visit should be in 10 years. If you have risk factors, you may have to come back as early as next year or within five years.


Most patients recover fully within 30 minutes of completing the procedure. That means they can go back to their regular activities the next day. The only thing to worry about is the lingering effect of sedation, which can last for a few more hours. The patient should not drive for at least 12 hours after the procedure.

Many clinics require those who are taking a colonoscopy to have an escort for taking public transportation. If you had one or more large polyps removed and you take a blood-thinning drug, you may have to stop your medication for several days to reduce the risk of bleeding.

Risks and Complications

While it’s generally a safe procedure, there are still risks to taking a colonoscopy. Occasionally it can cause tears in the colon, heavy bleeding, severe abdominal pain, and infection or inflammation of pouches in the colon known as diverticulitis. Some extreme complications can lead to hospitalization, surgery, blood transfusions, or rarely, death. If you experience fever, chills, bloody stool, weakness, dizziness, or bleeding from the rectum, call your doctor immediately.

Minor inconveniences also happen. Aside from restricting your diet and taking laxatives beforehand, you may need someone to drive you home because the test requires sedation. You may also need to take the rest of the day off work to rest.


Colon cancer may be the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the US for both men and women, but it remains to be one of the most preventable. Detecting and removing polyps early is the key to reducing one’s likelihood of developing the disease.

A colonoscopy offers the most comprehensive view of the colon and is proven to be more successful than other tests. The days of doubt, discomfort, and danger often associated with the procedure are also long gone, so people shouldn’t be afraid. Ask your physician about the ideal time for you to get screened.

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