James H. Reichheld, MD, is a board-certified gastroenterologist and Medical Director of The Endoscopy Center at Lowell General Hospital. Here he shares some important information about colonoscopy screenings and guidelines, and ways to reduce your risk for colon cancer.
Colonoscopy Screening FAQs
Colorectal cancer usually begins with small growths, called polyps, inside the large intestine or rectum. Cancers in the colon or rectum develop very slowly, over a period of about 10 years. Cancer in these areas is very preventable. In fact, detection and removal of these precancerous polyps means that it is highly unlikely that an individual will develop colon cancer.
Anyone can get colon cancer, however, men have a higher incidence than women, and it is more common in adults 50 and over, or if there is a family history of the disease.
The most accurate way to detect colon cancer is by having a colonoscopy, which is considered the gold standard of colon cancer screening due to its high sensitivity. The procedure is done with a colonoscope, which is a long flexible instrument that has a small video camera on the end so we can examine the lining of the colon. This high-definition camera helps us find very small polyps, even those as small as an eighth of an inch.
The great thing about a screening colonoscopy is that the procedure is both diagnostic and therapeutic. If we find polyps, we are able to remove them at the same time, avoiding the need for an additional procedure. If we find something that looks more advanced or possibly cancerous, we are able to coordinate a consultation with a colorectal surgeon at Lowell General right away to determine if surgery may be needed.
The American Cancer Society recommends colonoscopy screening at age 50. People at high risk, such as those with a family history of colon polyps or colon cancer, should talk with their doctor about being screened at an earlier age. And of course, if you have any symptoms such as abdominal pain, blood in the stool or a change in bowel habits you should be seen by your physician right away. If nothing is found, the test typically does not need to be repeated for another 10 years.
Today, colonoscopies are performed with medications that should completely prevent discomfort. In fact, most patients find the preparation the most challenging part, as it involves drinking a solution that cleanses the colon so we can get a clear picture of the lining. My patients often tell me they wish they hadn’t worried so much about having it done, and done it sooner.
Having the recommended screenings, eating well with a diet high in fruit and vegetables, regular daily exercise of at least 30 minutes a day, and not smoking are the best things you can do to prevent colon cancer.