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What's It Like: To get a colonoscopy

Thousands of people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with colon cancer this year. Studies show that early screening for colon cancer can work as a preventive tool for reducing the risk of colon cancer.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Published: May 13, 2012
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Why get a colonoscopy?

The most common reason that someone gets a colonoscopy is to be screened for colon cancer. If you are at average risk for colon cancer, meaning you have no symptoms or family history, you should get your first colonoscopy at 50.

Colon cancer usually starts in the glands in the lining of the colon and rectum. And colon cancer usually begins as noncancerous polyps, which slowly develop into cancer.

Colon cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths. However, studies have shown that if a colonoscopy is done and polyps are removed by a trained professional, the risk of developing colon cancer goes down by at least 50 percent.

In 2012, there will be an estimated 103,170 new cases of colon cancer and 40,290 new cases of rectal cancer in the U.S. It's estimated that 51,690 people in the U.S. will die in 2012 from colon and rectal cancer.

The death rate from colon cancer has decreased in both men and women for the past 20 years. There are a number of likely reasons for this. One is that doctors are finding polyps through colonoscopies and removing the polyps before the polyps can develop into cancer. Screening also is allowing more colon cancer to be found earlier when the disease is easier to cure.

Colon cancer grows slowly. From the start of a benign polyp to the formation of colon cancer takes on average 10 years. It's ideal to intervene before that process occurs.

Studies have shown that these can contribute to a person's likelihood to develop colon cancer: age older than 50, the presence of polyps, a family history of color cancer, Crohn disease, dietary decisions, sedentary lifestyle and smoking.

What happens when you get a colonoscopy?

Before getting a colonoscopy, you have to prepare your colon. Your colon has to be clean so that your doctor can have a clear passageway to look for polyps.

Preparing for a colonoscopy is probably the least pleasant part of the whole procedure. You must take a sizable amount of laxatives and drink plenty of clear liquids, such as water and sports drinks, for one to three days before the test. The preparation also might include enemas and not eating solid foods for two or three days before the test.

When you go in for your colonoscopy, the physician will sedate you. Then, the physician takes a flexible tube with a camera, inserts it into the rectum and looks at the lining of the colon all the way through.

If the physician finds any polyps, they will most likely be removed that day. Polyps are then sent to a pathologist who can check them for cancer.

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by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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