A Colonoscopy Q&A

A stylized anatomical image of the colon

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Why get a colonoscopy?

Cancers of the colon and rectum are the fourth-most common in the United States and the second-leading cause of cancer deaths, according to the National Cancer Institute. Early detection can save lives.

The gold standard for detection? A colonoscopy.

Colonoscopies are vital tools to catch cancer early or help prevent it, says Dr. Erin Lange, a colorectal surgeon at Northwest Hospital. That’s why everyone over age 50 should have one – and sooner for those with a family history of colorectal cancer.

What exactly is a colonoscopy?

A colonoscopy is a test that lets your doctor examine your large intestine. During the hour-long procedure, a long, flexible tube is inserted into the rectum and moved into the colon. A light and a camera on the tube let your doctor search for inflamed tissue or abnormal growths called polyps. These growths, which can turn into cancer if left untreated, are typically removed during the procedure.

Northwest Hospital also offers a virtual test called a CT colonography. This exam uses a CT scan to inspect the colon. Like a colonoscopy, it requires patients to take laxatives before the procedure to clear out the large intestine.

Who should get one?

“Average-risk” patients – those without symptoms of colorectal cancer and no family history of it – should have a screening at age 50 and every 10 years afterward.

Patients who have a history of colorectal cancer in their families should talk to their doctors about when to schedule a colonoscopy. Because polyps typically take several years to progress to cancer, high-risk patients like these should begin screening 10 years before their family member’s age at cancer diagnosis, Dr. Lange says. Patients with inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, are considered at increased risk for colorectal cancer and should talk to their providers about appropriate timing and frequency of screening.

Finally, any patient with symptoms such as bleeding, abdominal pain, or bowel obstruction should talk to their doctor. These could be signs of colorectal cancer.

Will it hurt?

Many patients are anxious about the procedure, Dr. Lange says. Patients receive a sedative to help them relax and to minimize pain. In some cases, patients can receive general anesthesia.

Despite worries, people shouldn’t postpone this lifesaving test, Dr. Lange says. “If you ask any patients who have caught cancer early, they will all say to forget the inconvenience and do it for yourself and your family.”

To find a provider, visit nwhospital.org or call 206-520-5000.

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