How Do I Know if I Need a Colonoscopy?
Your best defense against colon cancer is not as bad as you may fear. Read on to learn what it is, why it is essential and how to know when to schedule your first colonoscopy. The most important thing is to ask your family about their health history so you can share the information with your physician. Your genetics and other health factors will help determine the individualized care plan that is right for you.
What Is a Colonoscopy Anyway?
A colonoscopy is the recommended screening that is most effective for detecting colorectal cancers. A colonoscopy is a painless procedure where you are sedated while the inside of your colon and rectum are examined. Most patients wake up and do not remember any of the procedure and are in no post-procedure discomfort. The specialist who is trained to assess and counsel you about individual colorectal cancer risk levels, and who performs your colonoscopy, is called a gastroenterologist.
The goal of a screening colonoscopy is to detect and remove any abnormal tissue that may be forming and to remove early cancerous tumors before they grow to an advanced stage. Colorectal cancers typically develop with no symptoms, so you can have precancerous polyps or cancerous tumors in your digestive system without being aware. Maintaining colorectal health through preventive screening is your best defense against colorectal cancer, as it is a silent disease.
The age at which you have your first colonoscopy depends on a combination of factors such as your personal health history, family health history and lifestyle. We have prepared a general guide to help you understand when to focus on your colon health.
Determine Your Risk Level:
Average Risk Patients
Patients who are at average risk for developing colorectal cancers should generally have their first screening colonoscopy at age 50.
- If no abnormal tissue is detected, those of average risk only require follow-up colonoscopies every 10 years until age 75. Sometimes your physician will make a different recommendation at age 75; this depends on your health.
High Risk Patients:
If you meet any of the criteria below, you should schedule a consultation with a gastroenterologist to determine the right age for your first screening colonoscopy. If you already have a gastroenterologist, be sure to ask about recommendations for colorectal cancer screening based on your health history.
- You are considered a high risk patient if you have a first degree relative (parent or sibling) or multiple 2nd degree relatives (grandparent, aunt, uncle) who have been diagnosed with colon cancer. If you fall into this group, you may be more likely to develop polyps in your gastrointestinal tract that could form into colorectal cancer. The right age for your first colonoscopy will be determined by your gastroenterologist based on your unique family history.
- If you have suffered from Inflammatory Bowel Diseases such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis for many years, you should talk to your gastroenterologist to determine the right screening age for colorectal cancers. Patients with these conditions can benefit by screening earlier than patients of average risk.
- If you know that someone in your family has a genetic condition such as Familial Adenomatous Polyposis or Lynch Syndrome, you should talk to a gastroenterologist to determine the right screening age for colorectal cancers. These and other inherited conditions can place you at a higher risk of developing cancers of the digestive and/or gynecologic tracts. Your physician may refer you to a genetic counselor to review your family history and discuss your risk level based on this information.
- If you know that someone in your family has had any cancers of the gynecologic or gastrointestinal tract, you should talk to your physician about beginning colorectal cancer screening before age 50.
- If you are of African American or American Indian descent and have no other risk factors, you need to be especially diligent about scheduling your first colonoscopy at age 50.
- If you have your first colonoscopy and abnormal tissue or polyps are removed, your gastroenterologist will create a personalized follow-up care plan.
What Else Can I Do?
What screenings are available if I am unable to have a colonoscopy?
- Some patients have health conditions or anxiety that may prevent them from being able to tolerate a colonoscopy bowel preparation and procedure. Talk to your gastroenterologist about other screening options that may be available to you.
What other ways can I prevent colon cancer in addition to following my physician’s recommended colonoscopy schedule for early colorectal cancer detection?
- Eating the recommended daily allowance of fiber and whole grains (and an antioxidant-rich diet) are the best dietary methods for lowering your risk for developing colon cancer.
- Adult males and females should aim for greater than 25 grams of fiber in their diets each day.
- Alcohol consumption should be minimal. Women should limit intake to no more than one drink per day and men should limit alcohol intake to no more than two drinks per day (one drink = 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor).
- Limit red meat consumption as well as processed foods and those high in saturated fats.
- Exercise at least 30 minutes a day, most days of the week.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Work with your primary care physician to determine your healthy weight range (based on your age, gender and height).
- Don’t start smoking, or seek help to quit if you are a smoker.
Learning the right personal health maintenance plan is the first step you should take to protect your digestive health. If you meet the requirements for your first screening colonoscopy, or have questions about your risk level, call 630-717-2600 to schedule your consultation with a DuPage Medical Group gastroenterologist.