Colonoscopy – a painless test that can save your life

September 22, 2011 By Natalee Sansone, M.D.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released some good news: The prevalence of colorectal cancer and the number of deaths caused by it has decreased, due to increased screening within the past decade.

According to the CDC, from 2003 to 2007, approximately 66,000 colorectal cancer cases were prevented and 32,000 lives were saved compared to 2002. Half of these prevented cases and deaths were due to screening.

And yet, as of 2010, one in three adults aged 50 to75 have not had a colorectal cancer screening, or aren't getting screened as often as experts recommend. That's a disturbing statistic, because the most effective screening for colorectal cancer – the colonoscopy – is painless, takes only about two hours (including recovery time) and can be done as an outpatient procedure.

Experts recommend people have a colonoscopy at age 50 and every 10 years after. People at higher risk of colorectal cancer should ask their doctors about getting screened sooner and/or more frequently. Colorectal cancer risk factors include:

• Age – About 90 percent of people diagnosed with colon cancer are over age 50.

• Race – For reasons not yet understood, African-Americans have a greater colon cancer risk.

• A personal or family history of colorectal cancer or polyps, growths that can turn into cancer

• Inherited diseases, most commonly familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP), or hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (Lynch syndrome)

• Lifestyle – including eating a low-fiber, high-fat diet; consuming alcohol and/or tobacco; and lack of exercise

• Overweight and obesity

• Certain medical conditions, including type 2 diabetes; long-standing inflammatory diseases of the colon, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease; and others. 

During a colonoscopy, patients are sedated and don't feel anything. The doctor inserts a long, flexible tube, called a colonoscope, into the rectum and colon. The scope is fitted with a small camera that transmits a video image onto a computer screen and allows the doctor to see any abnormal areas.

The doctor can use the colonoscope to search for and remove polyps, which can be later tested for cancer. Colonoscopy can also detect cancerous tumors at very early stages, when the cancer is easiest to cure.

Colorectal cancer is the No. 2 cause of cancer deaths for men and women, but it doesn't have to be. If you're age 50 or older and haven't had a colonoscopy, schedule one. If you're younger but think you might be at higher risk for colorectal cancer, talk to your doctor.

Natalee Sansone, M.D., is a gastroenterologist at The Hospital of Central Connecticut. For referrals to HCC physicians, please contact our free Need-A-Physician referral service by phone at 800.321.6244