What are the signs that I may need a colonoscopy?
Your doctor should recommend that you get a colonoscopy or other type of colon cancer screening test when you turn 50, or sooner if you have family history or are considered high risk. However, if you are experiencing symptoms, you may need to get a colonoscopy earlier. Signs that you may need a colonoscopy include:
- Blood in or on your stool
- Frequent and unattributed pain, aches or cramps in your stomach
- A change in bowel habits, like having stools that are narrower than usual
- Constipation or diarrhea unrelated to recent meals
- Unattributed weight loss
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor. Often, these symptoms may be caused by something other than cancer. But, the only way to know is to see your doctor.
You’ll often hear colonoscopies referred to as the ”Gold Standard” of screening. This is because they can both find potentially precancerous growths called polyps and remove them, while other screening tests may only find cancer or polyps. Since most cases of colon cancers start as polyps, colonoscopies essentially allow you to stop colon cancer before it even starts!
We’re not going to lie – colonoscopy prep is generally considered the most difficult part of the entire procedure. The good news? Once you’re done with the prep, the rest is easy!
To get ready for a colonoscopy, full bowel prep is required. Your doctor will give you specific directions on how to prepare, but generally, this means all solids must be emptied from the stomach and bowels by following a clear liquid diet for one to three days before the procedure. You should not drink beverages containing red or purple dye. Here’s what you can drink:
- Fat-free bouillon or broth
- Strained fruit juice
- Plain coffee or tea
- Sports drinks, such as Gatorade
A laxative may also be required the night before a colonoscopy as to loosen stool and get your bowels moving.
You won’t be permitted to drive home from the procedure, so be sure to arrange a ride home beforehand.
- 27 insider colonoscopy prep tips and tricks
- Important questions you should ask your doctor about the test
- Our Six-Day Colonoscopy Prep Guide
During a colonoscopy, you will lie on your left side on an examination table. In most cases your doctor will give you a light sedative, and possibly pain medication, to help you stay relaxed.
The doctor will then insert a long, flexible, lighted tube called a colonoscope, or scope, into the anus and slowly guides it through the rectum and into the colon. The scope inflates the large intestine with carbon dioxide gas to give the doctor a better view. A small camera mounted on the scope transmits a video image from inside the large intestine to a computer screen, allowing the doctor to carefully examine the intestinal lining.
Once the scope has reached the opening to the small intestine, it is slowly withdrawn and the lining of the large intestine is carefully examined again.
Removal of Polyps and Biopsy
A doctor can remove growths, called polyps, during colonoscopy and test them for signs of cancer. Polyps are common in adults and most are usually harmless. However, most cases of colon cancer begin as polyps, so removing them early is an effective way to prevent cancer.
The doctor can also take samples from abnormal-looking tissues during colonoscopy. The procedure, called a biopsy, allows him or her to later look at the tissue with a microscope for signs of disease.
Does it hurt?
A colonoscopy can take anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes, usually averaging 20 to 30 minutes, depending on what is discovered. When performed by an experienced health care practitioner, the procedure is painless.
To relieve some anxiety or pain some patients’ experience, some form of anesthesia or sedation is provided. A sedative together with pain medication enables people to better tolerate the procedure, and the drugs induce relaxation and drowsiness.
Any biopsies taken from your colon during the colonoscopy will be sent to a lab for testing. You should hear results within a week of your procedure; at this point, discuss a follow-up plan with your gastroenterologist and primary care doctor.
I’ve been diagnosed with colon cancer. What now?
We're here for you, and we are on your team. If you or a loved one has been newly diagnosed with colon cancer, we encourage you to call our Toll-free Helpline at (877) 422-2030.
Everyone deals with cancer diagnosis differently, and our Patient Support team is trained to provide you with information and support during this confusing and overwhelming time.
Patients may experience cramping or bloating in the hour following the procedure. The sedative takes time to completely wear off, so patients may need to remain at the clinic for one to two hours, or until this happens. The upside: full recovery is expected by the next day. Side effects of colonoscopies are rare, but patients should contact their doctor if they experience:
- Severe abdominal pain
- Bloody bowel movements
Rarely, a patient may experience tearing or perforation of the lining of the intestine. If this happens, surgery may be needed to seal the injury. Another risk is bleeding, usually at the site of a biopsy or polyp removal. Most cases of bleeding stop without treatment or can be controlled at the time of procedure.
Download Colonoscopy Guide: What to Expect, a free application.
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For more information about colonoscopy, please call the Colon Cancer Alliance’s Toll-free Helpline at (877) 422-2030.