Men and women over the age of 50 are at risk of developing colon cancer. Screening for colon cancer saves lives and most insurance will cover these screenings at no extra cost to you. A screening is a process that looks for cancer in people who have no symptoms of the disease.
There are two types of tests that can identify colorectal cancer. The first type mainly finds cancer by examining feces for signs that cancer is present. This type of test is easier, but less likely to find polyps. The second type of test can find cancer and polyps. This is a more invasive type of test that looks at the colon to find abnormalities.
Fecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) detects hidden blood in stools. It is about 98% effective in finding disease if it is present. FIT testing is less invasive than a colonoscopy, but it is less likely to detect polyps.
Most people like this test because there are no dietary restrictions or bowel preparations to get ready for the test. If the results are positive for hidden blood, a colonoscopy will be needed for follow-up.
The FIT test should be done every year so that your doctor can compare results from year to year.
A colonoscopy is an outpatient procedure in which a lighted tube with a video camera on the end looks at the entire length of the colon and rectum. Special tools can be inserted through the tube to take samples or remove suspicious looking areas like polyps if needed. Polyps found before they become cancerous can be removed, so a colonoscopy can help prevent colon cancer. A colonoscopy is recommended starting at age 50 and every ten years after that. If you have certain risk factors, more frequent tests may be needed.
Before the Test:
Make sure your doctor knows about any medications that you are taking. At times, there may need to be changes in medication before your colonoscopy. Your colon and rectum must be empty before the test so that the doctor can have a clear view. Usually, this involves taking a laxative the night before your procedure. Your doctor may have other instructions about approved foods and drinks in the days leading up to your procedure. Keep in mind that a sedative will be used during the test, so be sure to have someone that will be able to drive you home after you are finished.
During the Test:
A colonoscopy lasts about thirty minutes, but it could last longer if a polyp is found and needs to be removed. Before the procedure begins, you will be given a sedative to make you feel calm and relaxed. The sedative will make you unaware of what is happening. Even after you wake up, you will still be groggy and will likely feel that way for most of the day.
During the test, you will be on your side. Your vital signs will be monitored throughout and after the screening. The doctor will insert the colonoscope and have a look around with the tiny camera. If a small polyp is found, it will likely be removed. If a larger polyp is found, a biopsy may be done. Any polyp or biopsy that is taken out will be examined under a microscope to determine if there is any cancer or signs of inflammation.
Side Effects or Complications:
Emptying the bowels before the test can be unpleasant, but it is necessary for the doctor to see clearly. The sedative makes the procedure pain free, although you may feel groggy for a while afterward. Because of the way the procedure is performed, you may feel bloated or gassy for a while afterward.
If a polyp or biopsy is taken, you may notice blood in your stool for a couple of days. If there is significant bleeding, which is rare, further treatment is needed.
A colonoscopy is a safe procedure that is done several times a week. On rare occasions, the colonoscope can perforate the lining of the colon or rectum. This is serious and may require surgical attention. Talk to your doctor about the risk.
Why Should I Get Screening?
Being proactive about your health can save your life. Screening and early detection of abnormalities can prevent serious illness or disease. Regular screening and testing is one of the most powerful ways you can prevent colorectal cancer or find it early when it is easier to treat.
Nine out of ten people who have cancer that is found early will still be alive five years later.
Too often, people do not get these screening tests. If abnormalities are not discovered, cancer can spread. Most people do not have symptoms of cancer until it is in the advanced stages and it's much harder to treat.
Early detection is the best protection. Ask your doctor about the best screening plan for you.