Health and Wellness

Colonoscopy 101

Male doctor talking to female patient - cancer risks and prevention

Colonoscopies can prevent cancer. It’s that simple. 

Yet, only about half of those 50 years or older – the population where the disease is most prevalent – get colonoscopies. As a result, more people are needlessly dying of colon cancer – over 50,000 a year in US alone. The disease is currently the third-leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women in this country and the third most commonly diagnosed cancer.

In recognition of Colon Cancer Awareness Month, we spoke with Greg Ginsberg, MD, director of Endoscopic Services, about why colonoscopies are considered the gold standard for colon cancer screening.

What is a colonoscopy?

Most colon cancers come from abnormal growths of tissue in the lining of the colon called polyps. 

A colonoscopy uses a slender, flexible tube with a light and video camera on the end that allows the doctor to view the entire colon. It not only identifies potentially pre-cancerous polyps but also removes them. 

The entire procedure, during which the patient remains under sedation, takes about 30 minutes and is not painful.

Are all polyps the same?

Most people think of polyps are mushroom shaped but now, thanks to high-definition endoscopes with electronic enhancing imaging, we’re finding flat lesions that may have been missed. These lesions have a more accelerated pathway to cancers.

Who should get a colonoscopy?

Screening for the average-risk individuals – those without a family history or the presence of other medical conditions – starts at age 50. Some guidelines recommend that African-American men, who may be at increased risk at a younger age, start screenings at 45.

If a person’s first colonoscopy is normal, the procedure should be repeated every 10 years, unless risk factors exist.

How should you prepare for a colonoscopy?

Prior to getting a colonoscopy, the entire bowel must be emptied. The prep is probably the most feared aspect of colonoscopy. Indeed, at one time, this required drinking a gallon of a prescribed preparation in a short period of time. 

There’s been considerable progress in this arena. Penn Medicine uses a low-volume (half gallon) and splits dose prep. The patient drinks one quart, waits six hours, and then the second.

Providing a prep that people find more tolerable is essential: The quality of the exam is only as good as the quality of the prep.

Is colon cancer treatable?

In its early stage, colon cancer is often highly treatable; however, it’s a silent disease. There are no symptoms until the advanced stage, when survival rates plummet to less than 10 percent. Preventing the disease from starting remains the goal.

Early detection and proper screening by colonoscopy can prevent 90 percent of colon cancers. I’m glad we’re demystifying colonoscopies. Knowing more saves lives.

Download Our Free Prevention Guide or Schedule a Screening

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