Colonoscopy: Helping protect your colorectal health

What is a colonoscopy?

A colonoscopy is a procedure that allows a doctor to look inside the entire large intestine, including the colon and rectum. Using a slender, flexible tube called a colonoscope, the doctor is able to see if you have inflamed tissue, abnormal growths, ulcers or areas of bleeding. The procedure is most often used to look for early signs of cancer in the colon and rectum, known as colorectal cancer.

Why is this procedure important?

Colonoscopy is the most effective way to screen for and detect colorectal cancer. This disease is second only to lung cancer as the leading cause of cancer death in the United States. The good news is that regular screening for and removal of colon polyps – grapelike growths that may become cancerous – can reduce a person's risk of developing colorectal cancer by up to 90 percent. (Most people diagnosed with colon polyps had no symptoms.) Also, regular screening can find existing cancer early when it is highly curable.

Who should have a colonoscopy?

Experts recommend that regular screenings for colorectal cancer begin at age 50 with follow up every 10 years. However, people who are at higher risk of the disease may need to be tested earlier and possibly more often.

People at higher risk include:

  • Those with a personal or family history of benign colorectal polyps, colorectal cancer, ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease
  • Those who smoke, drink alcohol excessively, are overweight and don't get much exercise
  • African Americans

Does a colonoscopy hurt?

Colonoscopy rarely causes much discomfort. In fact, patients often tell us the preparation and their apprehension are the most stressful aspects of the screening. Many say they "didn't feel a thing." The doctor performing your procedure will give you a sedative, a medication to help you relax. Because of the sedative, you may not feel any discomfort and may have no memory of the test. Some people fall asleep during the procedure. The colonoscopy usually takes 15 to 30 minutes.

What's the process for getting a colonoscopy?

You can either book an appointment directly with a specialist or get a referral from your primary care physician. You will have two appointments:

  • At your first appointment, the gastroenterologist will discuss the procedure and how to prepare for it, and will answer any questions you might have.
  • The second appointment will be for the procedure itself. Because you will be given medication to help you relax, it won't be safe for you to drive home after your procedure. Please make arrangements to have a driver accompany you to this appointment.

For more information about screenings and physicians in your area, call the Providence Resource Line at 503-574-6595 or visit www.providence.org/coloncancer.