March is Colorectal Cancer (CRC) Awareness Month, and its significance highlights the disease to educate on its effects and inspire acting on life-saving screenings when appropriate. The most common screening for CRC is colonoscopy. About one in 24 people will be affected by CRC in their lifetimes which is why we should make colonoscopies a priority. Yes, the idea of getting a colonoscopy may be daunting, but it’s very effective at catching CRC in its early stages – when it is also the most treatable.
What is a Colonoscopy?
Colonoscopies involve a flexible tube with a tiny camera and light that is inserted into your colon while you are sedated. This allows doctors to directly examine the colon for any signs of CRC and remove polyps, or small growths of cells that could be precancerous. Removing precancerous polyps during colonoscopy can reduce risk of developing colon cancer in the future. The procedure itself only takes about 20 to 30 minutes and rarely causes any complications.
Colonoscopies require a bit of preparation, which is ultimately why they make people a little uneasy. The process begins the day before your exam and is designed to empty your colon completely, so that doctors have a better view of what’s going on. Many patients say this is the most challenging part of the entire test because it requires a day-long liquid diet and taking laxatives that cleanse the bowel. As a result, planning to be close to a toilet during this stage is essential. The good news? The prep is worth the result, and recent improvements have made the prep easier with newer better-tasting medications in smaller volumes that are spaced out.
Keep Your Screening Regular
According to the American Cancer Society, you should start having regular colonoscopies at age 45 and sooner if you are at high risk. If you are in good health, you should continue to have colonoscopies every ten years through the age of 75. If you have a family history of colorectal cancer or have inflammatory bowel disease, your doctor may recommend screening earlier and more often.
You should also talk to your doctor about scheduling a colonoscopy if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Abdominal pain
- Blood in the stool
- Changes in bowel habits
- Chronic constipation
- Sudden, unexplained weight loss
Lowering Your Risk for Colon Cancer
Along with regular screenings, there are other ways you can reduce your risk by as much as 30%, including:
- Avoid excess alcohol
- Eat a low-fat, high-fiber diet
- Manage inflammatory bowel disease
- Regular exercise
- Quit Smoking
Staying fit and healthy can do a lot to prevent many different types of cancer. It’s important to stay physically active, maintain healthy body weight, and eat fruits and vegetables to help decrease your risk of cancer.
Schedule Your Colonoscopy Today
While there are other colon cancer tests, they do not have the preventive benefits of a colonoscopy. Whether you are experiencing symptoms, or this is your year to have a colonoscopy — don’t delay. Talk with your doctor to find out when screening is appropriate for you – it could save your life.
Heather J. Gerst, D.O., is a gastroenterologist with the UPMC Digestive Disease Center and sees patients at UPMC Williamsport, 700 High St., Williamsport, UPMC McElhattan, 1 Outlet Ln., Lock Haven, and by virtual telemedicine visits through the MyUPMC app. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Gerst, call 570-321-3454. For more information, visit UPMC.com/GINCPA.