Colonoscopy Frequently Asked Questions and Myths

Colorectal cancer, often referred to as colon cancer, is the third leading cancer killer among men and women in the U.S. Colorectal cancer is largely preventable with regular screening, and is curable with early detection. A recent study by leading cancer groups states that deaths from colorectal cancer in the U.S. are down nearly five percent, more than the other leading cancer killers (lung, breast and prostate cancers). Among the key factors credited with the decline is prevention through screening and the removal of precancerous polyps. Each year more than 145,000 people are diagnosed with colon cancer in the U.S. and approximately 50,000 people die from it annually. There are many myths about colorectal cancer, such as that the procedure to screen for the disease is painful, when in fact a colonoscopy is well tolerated and can save your life. The American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy recommends having your first colonoscopy screening starting at age 50 and repeating every 10 years. If you have a family history of colorectal cancer, you might need to start screening before age 50. Consult your doctor and get tested for colorectal cancer, it may save your life. Let's explore more myths about colon cancer and the facts patients need to know.

Colon Cancer Only Affects Men?
You Don't Need Screened Unless You Have Symptoms?
Once You Are Diagnosed With Colon Cancer It Is Too Late?
What Is A Colonoscopy?
What Is A Colonoscope?
Is A Colonoscopy Painful?
Can There Be Complications?
For more questions, myths and answers please visit the national assocaiton links to the left

Colon cancer only affects men
Colon cancer affects both men and women, in fact approximately 26,000 women die every year from colon cancer. It is an equal opportunity disease that does not discriminate against gender or race. Your age, not your gender, is the single most important risk factor for colorectal cancer. Both men and women should undergo testing for the disease starting at age 50. Most insurance covers colonoscopy screening at age 50. If you are 65 or older, colonoscopy is covered by Medicare. For many people, you do not need a referral.

You don't need to be screened for colon cancer if you have regular bowel movements and are feeling fine
Colon cancer is a silent killer. Usually there are no symptoms to rely on, and when there are symptoms, the cancer may be at an advanced stage. When colon cancer is caught early, most people are cured. However, when colon cancer is detected at later stages, the chances for cure are much lower.

Although colon cancer often has no symptoms, warning signs that may indicate colon cancer include blood in your stools, narrower than normal stools, unexplained abdominal pain, unexplained change in bowel habits, unexplained anemia, and unexplained weight loss. These symptoms may be caused by other benign diseases such as hemorrhoids, inflammation in the colon or irritable bowel syndrome. However, if you have any of these symptoms, you should be evaluated by your physician.

There are certain behaviors that can increase or decrease your risk for colorectal cancer. A high fat diet, smoking and excessive alcohol intake may increase your risk of colorectal cancer. On the other hand, exercise and a healthy balanced diet containing certain minerals and vitamins might decrease your chances of getting colorectal cancer. However, there is no substitution for getting tested. Starting at age 50, everyone should have a colonoscopy to screen for colon cancer, regardless of their lifestyle. In fact, colonoscopy allows for the detection and removal of benign polyps or growths in the colon BEFORE cancer develops.

Some individuals with certain gastrointestinal diseases, such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease, may have a risk of developing colon cancer earlier than age 50 and should talk to their physician about regular colonoscopy screening starting at an age earlier than 50 years.

Once You Are Diagnosed WIth Colon Cancer It Is Too Late To Do Anything
Colon cancer is a preventable and highly treatable cancer when caught at an early stage. People who are diagnosed at early stages have over a 90 percent chance of a cure and surviving. In contrast, people that have advanced stages of colorectal cancer have a lower chance of a cure; less than 10 percent will be alive in five years after the diagnosis. Therefore, it makes good sense to get screened for colorectal cancer. Myth: You don't need to get screened for colon cancer if there is no family history of colon cancer

Most people with colorectal cancer do not have a family member with the disease. Only 10-20 percent of people that have colorectal cancer have a family member with colorectal cancer. You can still get colon cancer even if no one in your family has ever had it.

What is colonoscopy?
Colonoscopy is a procedure which enables a physician (usually a gastroenterologist) to directly image and examine the entire colon. It is effective in the diagnosis and/or evaluation of various GI disorders (e.g. colon polyps, colon cancer,diverticulosis, inflammatory bowel disease, bleeding, change in bowel habits, abdominal pain, obstruction and abnormal x-rays or CT scans) as well as in providing therapy (for example, removal of polyps or control of bleeding). It is also used for screening for colon cancer. A key advantage of this technique is that it allows both imaging of abnormal findings and also therapy or removal of these lesions during the same examination. This procedure is particularly helpful for identification and removal of precancerous polyps.

What is a colonoscope?
A colonoscope is a flexible and steerable instrument to evaluate the entire colon (large intestine). The large intestine is approximately 3 – 4 feet long. A colonoscope is engineered such that biopsies of suspicious areas can be obtained, and polyps (which may turn into cancer) can be removed.

Is colonoscopy painful? Will I be sedated?
No, colonoscopy is usually not painful! Almost all colonoscopies can be performed using “intravenous sedation” or “twilight sedation” in which you are very drowsy, but comfortable and still breathing on your own. The most common type of sedation also has a mild amnesiac effect, so most patients do not even remember the procedure! Your doctor can discuss with you the best form of sedation to suit your needs.

Are there any complications from colonoscopy?
Yes, but potential complications are associated with virtually every form of testing done in medicine. Clearly, colonoscopy has been found to be extremely safe when performed by a well trained physician such as a gastroenterologist. Although quite rare, most complications are related to sedation administration (cardiac and respiratory problems); the colon may also become partially torn (perforated) and this may require surgery. Rarely, bleeding from polyp removal or from the procedure itself may require additional treatment such as hospitalization and/or blood transfusions. As one reads about these procedures, the reader should weigh these low risks against the far more frequent complication of developing colon cancer if appropriate testing is NOT done.