Female doctor and male patient (giving a thumbs-up gesture) looking at camera.

Katy D., a 51-year-old Seattle resident, just underwent her first colonoscopy. She's here to say that the not-so-fun procedure was worth the peace of mind.

Now that she's been handed a clean bill of health, she can relax for the next 10 years until her next colonoscopy is due. "I know that cancer can happen to anybody, and I have a higher risk than some," she says. "But if it's caught early, your prognosis is better and better all the time, so why not take that step to ensure that your body is healthy?"

Why should you get a colonoscopy?

Colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. among cancers that affect both men and women.  But it doesn't have to be. This is a slow-growing cancer, and one that screening tests can find early, when treatment works best.

You should get screened for colorectal cancer with a colonoscopy, whether you are a man or a woman, every 10 years for ages 50 through 74. "This screening is a really efficient way to catch cancer early," says Dr. Jim Guyn, Regence executive medical director for quality and accountable health care. "I've performed countless screenings and often removed polyps where the cancer was present in the head of the polyp but not yet in the stalk. Removing that polyp cures the cancer. This saves lives. I'm a believer."

What's it like to get a colonoscopy?

The preparation for the test is the hardest part—you have to fast and take laxatives so that your colon and rectum are clean and empty and your doctor can see the inner lining during the test. Your doctor will give you specific instructions on what to do leading up to the test, which probably includes drinking only clear liquids and taking laxatives that will cause you to be in the bathroom for much of the day and night before the test.

"Everything you hear about a colonoscopy is pretty miserable," says Katy. "All you hear is that the preparation is worse than the procedure, and that's true."

The procedure itself is easy by comparison. It usually takes about 30 minutes. (It may take longer if a polyp is found and removed.) You're sedated and don't feel a thing. "There was no discomfort or pain," says Katy. "The doctors were incredibly nice and professional, and the actual procedure was no big deal. I felt completely at ease."

Risk factors for colon cancer

You may need to start screening before age 50 and be tested more often if you or a close relative has:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBS), Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis
  • A personal or family history of colon cancer or colorectal polyps
  • A genetic syndrome such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (Lynch syndrome).

Preventive screenings—such as the FIT, FOBT and colonoscopies (see sidebar)—are generally covered 100 percent by your health insurance.

"Our body parts wear down, and it's important to take care of ourselves," says Katy. "If you do have cancerous cells growing in your body, you can find them and knock them out before they do a lot of damage." Getting ahead of that curve is a smart preventive choice.

Resources

Colon cancer screening