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What is a colonoscopy?
A colonoscopy is a screening that can identify cancers of the colon and rectum early, when the odds of successful treatment are highest. It can also help find polyps that can be removed before they become cancerous. The American Cancer Society and the US Preventive Services Task Force recommends that screenings like these begin at age 45. If you are at higher-than-average risk, you may need to begin screening earlier, and more frequently and/or with specific tests. As always, you should talk to your primary care provider about your risks and family medical history to determine the right time for you to begin screening.
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It's important to start the conversation with your primary care doctor. He or she can help determine when a colonoscopy is necessary.
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Whether you begin at 45 or earlier if you’re at higher risk, the important thing is that you get screened. Colorectal cancers are one of the most common cancers diagnosed in both men and women. And while the majority of these cases occur in people 50 and older, the disease can happen to men and women at any age.
Colonoscopies are critical to diagnosing cancer early because the early stages of colorectal cancer can often arrive with no symptoms. A colonoscopy can detect cancer before symptoms appear, and early detection can make the cancer much easier to treat. And by identifying polyps before they become cancerous, colonoscopies show themselves to be a powerful preventive tool as well.
While early stages of colorectal cancer are often symptomless, there are some common symptoms of colorectal cancers you can watch for, according to the American Cancer Society, including:
- Bleeding from the rectum
- Blood in the stool or in the toilet after having a bowel movement
- Dark or black stools
- A change in bowel habits or the shape of the stool (e.g., more narrow than usual)
- Cramping, pain or discomfort in the lower abdomen
- An urge to have a bowel movement when the bowel is empty
- Constipation or diarrhea that lasts for more than a few days
- Decreased appetite and
- Unintentional weight loss.
While these symptoms can also be indicative of other health conditions, you should talk to your doctor about them so they can help you get to the root of the issue and determine the underlying cause.
If you’re 45 or younger and at higher risk – which may include a family history of colorectal cancer or the presence of other diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease) – it’s a good idea to schedule your colonoscopy for peace of mind, early detection before symptoms appear and increased potential for successful treatment if cancer is found.
In fact, thanks in large part to colonoscopies, the overall incidence of, and death rates associated with, colorectal cancers have been on the decline.
Here’s more good news. A colonoscopy may be easier for you than you think. You will likely be given pain medication and a sedative to minimize your discomfort, and the screening usually only takes about 30 minutes. During that time, any polyps found will be removed by the doctor and tissue samples will be sent for a biopsy.
Ask your provider if a colonoscopy is a “Must Screening” for you. Discuss your risks and the right time for you to begin this important part of your health journey. It’s a short inconvenience that can make a world of difference.
In addition to scheduling your colonoscopy, you can also be proactive in prevention by maintaining healthy habits like daily exercise, a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting your alcohol intake and eliminating smoking.