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Knowing What to Expect with a Colonoscopy

Did you know that colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in both men and women and one of the deadliest? But, over the past few decades, more people are preventing and surviving colorectal cancer because of early screening. When colon cancer is found early, it’s easier to treat, and finding pre-cancerous growths called polyps allows their removal before they turn into cancer. VCU Health educates patients on how to stay healthy and cancer-free, starting with regular cancer screening tests.

Colonoscopies are Screening Tests and Diagnostic Tools

For most people, you should have a colonoscopy every 10 years after age 50. Those at higher risk have different recommendations according to their risk factors such as family history. The most common form of colorectal screening is a colonoscopy, which uses a flexible fiber-optic tube to check for cancer or polyps in the colon or rectum. With colonoscopy, physicians use a flexible, lighted tube, called a colonoscope, to look at the interior walls of the rectum and the entire colon. During this procedure, samples of tissue may be collected for closer examination, or polyps may be removed. Colonoscopies can be used as screening tests or as follow-up diagnostic tools when the results of another screening test are positive.

Understanding the Risk of Colonoscopies

Although colonoscopies are relatively safe, there are risks. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that the ambulatory surgery center industry should develop procedure-specific measures to ensure quality across the spectrum. We know that “simple” colonoscopies – ones without polypectomy, or surgery to remove polyps, are associated with the lowest risk of adverse events. Colonoscopies with polypectomy and ablation, or burning the polyps with laser-like devices, are associated with the fewest adverse events.

Trust Your Doctor to Weigh the Risks and Benefits

It’s important to trust your doctor to weight the risks and benefits of colonoscopy, particularly when they are associated with polypectomy. Despite the risks, we believe colonoscopies can save lives.

Regular Screening Begins at Age 50

The American Cancer Society recommends that people who have no identified risk factors should begin regular screening at age 50. Those who have a family history or other risk factors for colorectal polyps or cancer should talk with their doctor about starting screening at a younger age and/or getting screened more frequently. Other forms of screening include:

  • CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy)
  • Double-contrast barium enema
  • Fecal immunochemical test
  • Fecal occult blood test
  • Sigmoidoscopy, which checks just the lower colon (rectum)