TMH Living Well: Colonoscopy a screening test and treatment all in one
February 6, 2015
Colonoscopies may not be the most pleasant of screening tests to complete, but they come with a bonus — if the surgeon finds polyps or precancerous growths, he or she removes them. That means it's both a screening test and preventive treatment. Once it's done, you likely don't have to do it again for another 10 years.
Colonoscopies rule out colon cancer. At age 50, it's recommended that both men and women get a baseline colonoscopy.
"Colonoscopies are important procedures that often catch cancer before it begins or when it is curable. If you are due, get the test done and encourage loved ones to also get screened," said Dr. Alexis Driggs, general surgeon with The Memorial Hospital.
Polyps — a clump of cells that can form in mucus linings — are often harmless, but over time they can develop into cancer. That's why it is important to have colon polyps removed. General surgeons are well trained in performing colonoscopies.
"I've performed many colonoscopies and it’s fairly common to find polyps. Most are benign, but some have the potential to turn into cancer," Driggs said.
According to the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons, at least 15 to 20 percent of the adult population has polyps. Since it's impossible to tell which polyps might turn into cancer, surgeons remove all polyps they find during a colonoscopy.
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Early colon cancer has very few symptoms. By the time symptoms occur it is often advanced. Colon cancer is the third most common cancer in both men and women.
"Colonoscopy is not the only screening test for colon cancer, but it is the gold standard," Driggs added.
Colonoscopy is completed with a long flexible instrument that is used to inspect the entire colon with a camera. Other endoscopy tests, such as sigmoidoscopy, are also used to view the lining of the colon but only reach the lower six to eight inches of the large intestine, about a quarter of the colon.
The colon can also be inspected via X-ray after taking a barium enema, but if polyps are found a colonoscopy must then be completed. Stool tests exist to check for blood — a sign of colon cancer — and do not detect polyps.
TMH has an endoscopy suite within the hospital where general surgeons perform colonoscopies. It is a same-day procedure that takes approximately two to three hours from start to finish. Patients are sedated with general anesthesia, and most do not feel any discomfort afterwards.
"The procedure itself is very benign. Most people remember having an IV placed and then wake up wondering when we are going to get started. The part people dislike is the preparation the day before, but it's well worth it," Driggs said.
To prepare, patients are put on a liquid only diet the day before and must drink a solution that clears the bowels. According to studies, about 25 percent of people do not prep thoroughly, and the procedure needs to be repeated.
"It's really important to follow the preparation directions thoroughly. If the colon is not empty, we can't see the colon itself, only what's inside it," she said.
While unpleasant, remember, it's just one day. Besides, you'll likely get a free pass for 10 years and most importantly, the peace of mind that your colon is cancer-free.
If you are approaching age 50, or are due for your 10-year colonoscopy, call TMH at 970-826-2400 to schedule. Both of TMH's general surgeons, Dr. Driggs and Dr. Womble, are well versed in performing colonoscopies.
When caught early, most cancers can be treated. That's why screening tests are
so important. Other common screening tests include mammograms, Pap tests, prostate screens and skin checks for melanoma.
This weekly article with tips on living well is sponsored by The Memorial Hospital at Craig – improving the quality of life for the communities we serve through patient-centered healthcare and service excellence.