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Knowing What to Expect with a Colonoscopy

Cancer Prevention Screening

Annual screenings identify health conditions early and can save lives

Screening is an important part of colon health and cancer prevention. And colonoscopy is the gold standard used to identify precancerous and cancerous colorectal polyps.

Colorectal cancer can happen to anyone. At VCU Health, we offer colonoscopies to screen for colorectal cancer — a cancer that is most common among people 45 and older. It is also the third-most common cancer in adults in the United States.

Over the past few decades, more people are preventing and surviving colorectal cancer. That’s because preventive screenings can detect cancer early when it’s easier to treat. During these screenings, doctors can remove precancerous growths (polyps) before they turn into cancer. And because colorectal cancer cells grow slowly, symptoms may not be present until the cancer is more advanced.

There are several reasons to stay on top of scheduled colorectal screenings. If you have any of the following risk factors, talk to your doctor about colonoscopy screening.

  • If you have a family history of colorectal cancer, screening can occur before the age of 45. For example, if a first-degree relative was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 40, you should get screened 10 years before they were diagnosed (i.e. 30 years old).
  • If you are age 45 and have an average cancer risk, even if you don’t have symptoms.
  • Experience gastrointestinal problems or have a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease.
  • Experience blood in your stool, changes in bowel habits or have pain when using the bathroom.
  • If you are African-American or have a personal history of polyps, you are at a higher risk.

Colonoscopy Screening Test and Diagnostic Tool

The most common form of colorectal screening is a colonoscopy. A colonoscopy uses a lighted, flexible tube, called a colonoscope, to view the colon's full lining. During the screening, the doctor looks at the interior walls of the rectum and the entire colon. If necessary, samples of tissue are collected for closer examination, and we remove polyps.

A colonoscopy is also used as a diagnostic tool when the results of another screening test are positive.

What to Expect with a Colonoscopy

Your provider will discuss the steps you need to take to prepare for your colonoscopy and what to expect after the procedure.

  • The day before your colonoscopy. You will need to clean out your colon. You shouldn’t eat any solid foods and you should drink only clear beverages. You may have clear liquids up to 2 hours before your scheduled appointment. Your doctor will give you directions on how to get rid of any stool in your digestive tract. Talk to your doctor about any medications you currently take, including blood pressure medicine, blood thinners or iron pills.
  • The day of your colonoscopy. Do not eat or drink anything before your colonoscopy. Bring someone with you to your appointment so they can drive you home.
  • During your colonoscopy. The procedure takes only 30 – 60 minutes. Your doctor will lie you on your side and insert a tube in your rectum and your colon to look for any polyps. You will not feel any pain. Polyps or a small tissue sample may be removed.
  • After your colonoscopy. You will recover in a recovery room and recovery should be no longer than an hour (sometimes as short as 20 minutes). You may be sleepy and you may pass gas — which helps clear the air in your colon. You might experience mild cramps or a little blood in your first stool.

Understanding Colonoscopy Risk

Although colonoscopies are safe, there are some risks. A “simple” colonoscopy is associated with the lowest risk.

A polypectomy (removal of polyps inside the colon) is a routine procedure usually performed at the same time as a colonoscopy. The removal of polyps can increase the risk of bleeding and perforation (tear or hole) in the colon.

A colonoscopy with a polypectomy still has few associated risks.

Trust Your Doctor to Weigh the Risks and Benefits

It’s important to trust your doctor to weigh the risks and benefits of colonoscopy, particularly when they are associated with polypectomy. Despite the risks, a colonoscopy can detect cancer early and save lives.

Colonoscopy screening locations and scheduling

Our experts provide colonoscopy screening services at our downtown Richmond location. Gastroenterology appointments can be at our Stony Point 9109 location or downtown.

Your VCU Health specialist or primary care doctor can help you schedule a colonoscopy. A referral is required.

If you’re experiencing digestive or gastrointestinal issues, call the Center for Digestive Health at (804) 828-4060.

Why Choose VCU Health

At VCU Health, our team brings together the expertise and compassionate care you deserve. Our team includes nationally recognized gastroenterologists (doctors trained in problems of the GI tract) and highly specialized colon and rectal surgeons. And should you ever need world-class cancer care, we collaborate with the experts at VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center, Richmond's only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center.

As a leading academic health system, you’ll find the resources and advanced technology needed to accurately identify and treat gastrointestinal conditions. And we offer state-of-the-art endoscopy suites to ensure your comfort.

More information about screening for colon cancer and recommended guidelines are found on the VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center’s website.