Colonoscopy: a No-brainer Screening

As part of well exams, primary care physicians recommend screenings for breast, cervical, prostate and colon cancer depending upon the patient’s age and sex. The screening test for breast and prostate cancer detects cancer, but the screening tests for cervical and colon cancer detect not just cancer, but pre-cancerous growths. “Screening for cervical and colon cancer actually PREVENT cancer,” emphasizes Matthew Beckwith, M.D., of Robinwood Family Practice.

Colon cancer is one of the most preventable cancers, yet according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three adults aged 50 to 75 years have not been tested for colorectal (colon and rectal) cancer.

Colonoscopies can show irritated and swollen tissue, ulcers, polyps and cancer. “Colon cancer always starts out as a polyp,” explains Dr. Beckwith. “A polyp is a little growth inside the colon. Some polyps are benign, but some are pre-cancerous. It takes nine years for a polyp to change into cancer.”

During a colonoscopy, a gastroenterologist uses a long, flexible, narrow tube with a light and tiny camera on one end to view the rectum and colon. The physician removes any polyps that are found and based on its type, decides when to schedule the next colonoscopy. If no polyps are found, the next colonoscopy is in 10 years. If a pre-cancerous polyp is discovered, a colonoscopy may be scheduled in five years, three years or in some cases more often.

“As long as there is no cancer when you get your first colonoscopy, and you receive subsequent colonoscopies when the doctor tells you to, you will likely not get colon cancer,” says Dr. Beckwith. In short, a colonoscopy doesn't just detect colon cancer, it prevents it.

Anyone who’s been through a colonoscopy will tell you, the procedure is easy—the preparation is not. Drinking bowel-clearing liquid and spending 16 hours near a bathroom is no fun. But deciding whether to get a colonoscopy is simple: Would you rather have colon cancer or a colonoscopy?