Why You Should Get a Colonoscopy (Even When You Don’t Want To)

The exam that can stop cancer cold
Illustration of a scope in the colon finding a polyp

Taking the time to have a colonoscopy isn’t everybody’s idea of a good time, but it is an important half hour you can take to protect your health and decrease your colon cancer risk.  

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Here’s the thing. Colonoscopies save lives ­— a lot of lives. And while it can be inconvenient to get your body prepared for the procedure, the relief of knowing your colon health status cannot be denied.

Colorectal cancer is both common and preventable. “If you’ve got a colon, you’re at risk,” says gastroenterologist and colon cancer expert Carol Burke, MD. And colonoscopies are the best tool to reduce your risk.

And, during the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare providers are taking extra steps to keep their facilities safe for patients to get important health screenings like colonoscopies.

Still skeptical? Dr. Burke shares 7 reasons you should schedule a colonoscopy (even when you don’t believe it is important for you to).

1. Colon cancer can happen to anyone

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer and the second most common cause of cancer deaths. Most people who get colon cancer are over 50.

But in the last decade, the rate of colon cancer has increased in younger adults. It can strike anyone, even otherwise healthy people with no family history of the disease. 

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2. Colonoscopies prevent colon cancer

Unlike many cancers, colon cancer is preventable. It starts from little growths called polyps that develop on the lining of the colon or rectum. Over time, some of these polyps can become cancerous. During a colonoscopy, doctors spot and remove these polyps. Removing polyps decreases the risk of colon cancer.

3. You can’t rely on symptoms to warn you

Polyps and early stage curable colon cancer don’t cause symptoms. The whole point of colonoscopies is to get rid of polyps before they turn into cancer, so don’t wait for symptoms to spur you into action.

4. Colonoscopies aren’t as bad as you think

People are often wary of the laxative they have to drink to prepare their bowel for the exam. But bowel prep is much improved these days. Cleansing formulas are more efficient than they used to be, so you don’t have to drink nearly as much as you did in the past. And the taste has improved, as well.

As for the exam itself, it’s often done during so-called “twilight sleep,” or conscious sedation. With twilight sleep, 99% of patients are comfortable during the exam. Most people find that is much more pleasant than ever expected. Many people don’t even remember it all afterwards.

5. Colonoscopies are accurate

Doctors call colonoscopies “the gold standard” for a reason. They can detect more than 95% of cancer cells and large precancerous polyps in the colon.

6. Colonoscopies are safe

So you heard your friend’s cousin’s neighbor’s dentist had a colonoscopy complication? Despite rumors to the contrary, colonoscopies are extremely safe when performed by experienced specialists.

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Yes, there’s a risk of bleeding and perforated bowel (basically, a hole poked through the colon). But the risks are low. Fewer than 1 in 1,000 people experience bleeding or perforated bowel. By contrast, about 1 in 18 people will develop colon cancer in their lifetime.

If you have any questions or concerns about getting a colonoscopy during the pandemic, your healthcare provider can share the steps they’re taking to keep everyone safe — such as screening everyone who enters the building for COVID-19 symptoms, requiring everyone to wear masks, disinfecting surfaces frequently and spacing out seating in waiting rooms.

7. Colon cancer screening puts your health in your hands

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends people age 45 to 75 get colorectal cancer screening. But if you have a family history of colon cancer, you might benefit from earlier screenings, so talk to your doctor. 

The unfortunate truth is that not all cancers can be prevented. But colon cancer can. Isn’t that worth a little time for your health?    

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