Colonoscopy is a simple, painless, early-detection procedure that’s too important to ignore. Colorectal cancer is a serious disease of the digestive system, in which malignant (cancerous) cells form in the colon (known as the large bowel, or first part of the large intestine), or the rectum. Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer (CRC) is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the country. CRC is one of the third most commonly diagnosed cancers in men and women nationally — but it’s also one of the most preventable, with improved diet and lifestyle choices. African Americans are at higher risk for colorectal cancer. Pre-cancerous polyps, ovarian cancer, or inflammatory bowel disease (like Crohn’s disease or chronic ulcerative colitis) also puts you at higher risk. Age is a factor with CRC; 90 percent of all cases are diagnosed after reaching age 50. Still, colorectal cancer can be treated when caught early through timely screenings, like colonoscopy.
A colonoscopy locates both harmless and suspicious polyps for removal and testing for possible cancer. With normal results at age 50, you’ll only need to be screened every 10 years after that, unless polyps are found, if you’re in a higher risk category, or if a cancer is confirmed, per your doctor’s direction. Before your screening, you’ll be prescribed specific bland food, plus laxatives in liquid or pill form that will empty the colon after a couple of days. (You’ll want to be home with easy access to the bathroom, especially once the desired effect kicks in, so a weekend is ideal.) Once waste is eliminated, your pre-scheduled colonoscopy will take under an hour the following day (and have you comfortably back home that same day). While you’re under sedation or anesthesia, the doctor will gently insert a colonoscope into the rectum to detect any suspicious polyps or tissue samples to remove and test for cancer. (Virtual colonoscopy, which views via x-rays – computed tomography colonography or CTC – is less invasive.)
Discuss your age, personal, family, and lifestyle risk factors with your doctor. Annual physicals should include a digital rectal exam via lubricated, gloved finger, to check for lumps or anything unusual. Watch for bowel changes, like constipation or diarrhea; stool appearance (including bright red blood, darkening, or narrowing); abdominal cramping or pain; fatigue; weakness; or unintended weight loss (some of these can mimic other conditions). Avoid tobacco use in any form. Minimize that “spare tire” by eating more fruits and vegetables (at least 2 ½ cups daily). Increase fiber, eliminate processed foods, and limit red meat and alcohol. Partnering these with 150 minutes of exercise per week, can provide some armor against developing colorectal cancer. So can a colonoscopy.
By Lisa Miceli Feliciano