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Don't Fear Your Colonoscopy

Doctor looking through scope

According to the American Cancer Society, colon cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosis in both men and women. Experts estimate almost 100,000 new cases of colon cancer will be diagnosed this year. In addition close to 45,000 new cases of rectal cancer are projected this year as well. Despite major advancements in colon cancer screenings, the stigma surrounding a colonoscopy leaves many of us, well, a little uncomfortable. But sometimes we need to suffer a little discomfort for better health.

The good news is that the survival rate for early detection—or stage I colon cancer—is 92 percent. "Colon cancer is largely preventable if patients undergo screening tests," said Matthew Steenblik, MD, of University of Utah Health. In honor of National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, here's an introduction to colonoscopy and why you consider having one.

Who Should Be Screened?

Both men and women who lack symptoms and don't have colon cancer in their family history should start screenings at age 50. If colon cancer runs in the family, patients should start regular screenings at age 40 or sooner. "Age 40 is a good benchmark, but patients of any age with bowel symptoms (unintentional weight loss, abdominal pain, blood in the stool) should talk to their doctor," said Steenblik.

He adds that frequency depends on what's found during the colonoscopy. "The time between screenings could be as long as every 10 years, or screenings could be as frequent as every year, depending on what's found."

Making Colon Health a Part of 'Regular' Conversation

Let's face it: there is never a perfect time to talk about bowels. Although such topics rank as the quintessential granddaddy of bathroom talk, learning to be comfortable talking about matters of personal health should be second nature. And since colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the US, it's literally a matter of life and death. So start paying attention to bowel behavior, and be sure to talk to your doctor about any changes in the stool, pain during a bowel movement, or unexplained weight loss.

What to Expect During a Colonoscopy

Despite hearing tales of bathrooms being converted practically into dens to accommodate the long hours of being (ahem) indisposed—even Pinterest offers bathroom decorating ideas for the colonoscopy prescreening phase—the truth is, advances in medical care have improved the entire process. Today's precolonoscopy phase now starts as early as one week before the procedure to gradually rid the body of fiber. Then patients rely on large doses of water and clear liquids and broths to rid waste rather than relying solely on strong laxatives.

The procedure itself has improved, too. "Our ability to use medications to sedate patients and keep them comfortable has improved," said Steenblik. "Patients are routinely kept comfortable during the procedure." Also, the devices used during the procedure are advanced, and they have the ability to detect and remove polyps comfortably.

As you re-examine those long-lost New Year's resolutions, why not add a new goal this month? How about the goal for better health? By scheduling regular colorectal screenings, you are paving the way for a life free of disease. "A healthy life is a happy one," said Steenblik. "And that includes screenings from the top of your body to your bottom."