Colonoscopies an Effective Tool to Find Cancer

Colon Cancer Second Leading Cause of Cancer Deaths

When patients turn 50, I mention during their annual physical that it is time to have a colonoscopy. Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the country, which makes screening for it so important. 

The colon is the last part of the digestive system. During a colonoscopy, a long, flexible tube is inserted into the rectum. A tiny video camera at the tip of the tube allows the doctor to detect abnormalities inside the entire colon. A colonoscopy is not painful and patients are sedated. If the doctor sees a polyp during the procedure, he can remove it right away.

While colonoscopies are a great screening tool, patients often look uncomfortable when I suggest it. Some think it is painful or they are worried about the preparation. Preparing for the colon cancer screening can be uncomfortable since you need to avoid eating solid food and use laxatives to empty your colon on the day before the procedure. The colon needs to be clean as possible for the surgeon to get the best view.

Once you have the colonoscopy and if everything looks good, you do not need to have another one for 10 years. In addition, most insurers, including Medicare, cover the cost since colonoscopies are considered a cancer screening, similar to a mammogram.

Screenings usually begin at age 50 since the chances of developing colon cancer increase as you age. If there is a family history of colon history or you have suspicious symptoms, such as blood in your stool, your doctor may recommend one before then. Many people with colon cancer do not experience any symptoms, including blood in their stool, a dramatic change in their bathroom habits, persistent abdominal discomfort or unexplained weight loss.

When I ask patients why they did not get their colonoscopies, they sometimes reply it was too hard to take off work, they could not find anyone to drive them home after the procedure or mention the preparation process. It is time to move past those excuses and have the test done since it can detect cancer at an early stage when it can be easily treated. A colonoscopy can save your life.

James Spencer, MD, is a family medicine physician at ThedaCare Physicians-Waupaca.