Don’t Fear the Colonoscopy
Posted 4/18/2017 by UHBlog
Although colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in men – after lung and prostate cancer – the disease can usually be treated if it's detected in its early stages. The problem, says gastroenterologist Gregory Cooper, MD, is that colorectal cancer rarely shows definitive symptoms early on.
By the time this form of cancer shows symptoms, it may already be in an advanced stage – which typically makes it difficult to treat. That’s why a colonoscopy is so important.
“A colonoscopy is a procedure used to look inside your colon – or large intestine – to detect early stage cancer or polyps that could develop into cancer,” Dr. Cooper says. “If any polyps are found, we’re usually able to remove them during the same procedure.”
Polyps are benign growths of tissue. Only a small percentage of polyps are likely to become cancerous.
However, Dr. Cooper says, “We have no way of knowing ahead of time which ones they will be, so it’s best to remove them.”
Most doctors recommend that men get a colonoscopy at the age of 50. However, if you have a parent or a sibling who has had colon cancer, you should get a colonoscopy when you're 40 years old or 10 years before the age at which your relative was diagnosed, whichever is earlier. Statistically, African-American men are at higher risk of colorectal cancer than Caucasian men are and may benefit from a colonoscopy at the age of 45 or earlier if they have a family history of colon cancer.
According to Dr. Cooper, if no polyps are found during the colonoscopy, it's recommended that another one be done 10 years later. If polyps are detected, your physician will probably suggest another colonoscopy be done in another five years or less.
“Polyps are fairly common,” he says. “About 30 percent of the population has them. Some of them develop into cancer. But when we remove them during the colonoscopy, we can prevent cancer from developing.”
The procedure is simple. A patient is usually under sedation while a thin tube with a tiny camera is inserted into the colon to take pictures or video.
“If polyps are found, they can almost always be removed during the procedure,” Dr. Cooper says. “Usually we can tell by looking at them whether or not they are pre-cancerous, but they are sent to a lab for testing to be sure.”
The worst part of a colonoscopy, most people agree, is the preparation. On the night before the procedure, you have to drink an unpleasant-tasting laxative to clean out your colon – and then spend a lot of time in the bathroom. However, Dr. Cooper says, new laxatives are available that don’t taste quite as bad and require less drinking. Following the procedure, you shouldn’t drive that day because of the effects of the sedation.
“It’s a small inconvenience for a potentially life-saving test,” he says. “There are a couple other ways to look for signs of colorectal cancer, such as a test for blood in the stool, but the colonoscopy is the closest thing we have to a gold standard.”
Symptoms of colon cancer usually show up in advanced stages of the disease. They can include rectal bleeding or blood in the stool, long-term changes in bowel habits or the consistency of stool, long-term abdominal pain or discomfort, or unexplained weight loss.
Dr. Cooper says you might reduce your risk of getting colon cancer by eating a diet of foods that are high in fiber and low in animal fat, while staying away from cigarettes.
Gregory Cooper, MD, is a gastroenterologist and program director of Gastroenterology at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, and co-program leader for Cancer Prevention and Control at the University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center and University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center. You can request an appointment with Dr. Cooper or any other doctor online.