What to expect from a colonoscopy
You’ve heard the stats: Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S., but more than half of those deaths could have been prevented with routine screenings.
That’s why Dr. Darrien Gaston, an Advocate Trinity Hospital physician and member of the American College of Gastroenterology, encourages his patients to get screened on a yearly basis starting at 50 and age 45 for African-Americans. “The quicker we can catch something, the easier it is to treat,” he says.
“Patients are always very anxious about getting colonoscopies, but in reality, it is a simple and painless screening,” he says.
During the procedure, physicians examine the colon and rectum with a fiber optic camera attached to a flexible tube. Using this instrument, your doctor can scan the large bowel and part of the small bowel for abnormalities such as ulcerations, lesions or polyps that may eventually lead to cancer if untreated.
“Often times, patients do not show any signs or symptoms when we detect a problem,” Dr. Gaston says. “That’s why it is so important to have a regimented screening schedule. I recommend that patients schedule appointments on their birthdays so they don’t forget.”
The hardest part about a colonoscopy may be preparing for one, he says. First you need to fast for 12 hours before the procedure, and then take a laxative. “The colon must be free from solid matter for the test to be performed properly. I tell my patients to spend the day at home or wherever they are most comfortable.”
Before the procedure begins, you can choose to be mildly sedated, which is called “twilight anesthesia,” or choose no sedation at all, he says. The colonoscopy takes about 10 to 20 minutes, after which you’ll spend another 20 minutes in the recovery area before going home. You can resume all of your normal activities the next day.
What about an x-ray instead of a traditional colonoscopy? Dr. Gaston says the x-ray is not as reliable. “Virtual tests that produce pictures of the colon and rectum can often miss abnormalities and detect growths that are non-existent,” he says. And if the test detects a polyp or lesion, “I can remove or biopsy any abnormal growths right then and there.”
“In my experience, this is a benefit, both physically and mentally, to my patients,” he adds.
Lesions that are too big to be safely removed during a colonoscopy can be removed by a surgeon later.
“Ever since Medicare approved colonoscopies, incidences of colon cancer have diminished,” says Dr. Gaston. “This is truly a life-saving screening.”
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