The procedure itself typically lasts between 15 and 30 minutes. When complete, your nurse will take you into a recovery area, where the sedation quickly wears off.
It is important to remember that your doctor does not necessarily think you have cancer if he or she suggests a screening test. Screening tests are given when you have no cancer symptoms in order to prevent cancer or catch it in its earliest stages. Once begun, they are typically repeated on a regular basis which can vary from one year to every 10 years depending on your medical history.
Certain habits, behaviors and environments are considered to be risk factors for cancer, based on scientific research. The presence of any of these risk factors may lead doctors to recommend that a patient be screened for cancer, which screening tests should be used and how often the tests should be done.
A colonoscopy allows your doctor to examine the interior of your colon to inspect for polyps, ulcers, tumors or lesions. If any abnormal tissue is found during the examination, your doctor can remove it immediately. If all looks good after your colonoscopy, you won’t have to schedule another one for 10 years.
A colonoscopy is the most effective cancer screening because it saves lives! Nine out of 10 people whose colon cancer is discovered early will still be alive in five years. One of the best benefits of a colonoscopy is that your doctor can remove anything suspicious before it even becomes cancerous. The diagnostic and preventative qualities of a colonoscopy make it a powerful weapon against cancer.
There are complications with any medical procedure. However, colonoscopies are safe and have minimal risk when performed by gastroenterologists, who have been specially trained and are experienced in these procedures.
One rare but major possible complication is perforation, in which a tear through the colon wall may allow leakage of intestinal fluids. It can be managed with antibiotics and intravenous fluids, although surgery is usually required. Bleeding may occur from the site of biopsy or polyp removal. It is usually minor and stops on its own. Rarely, transfusions or surgery may be required.
Localized irritation of the vein can occur at the site of medication injection. A tender lump develops which may remain for several weeks to several months but goes away eventually. Other risks include drug reactions and complications from unrelated diseases such as heart attack or stroke. Death is extremely rare but remains a remote possibility.
In short, with these procedures, complications are extremely rare, but they can happen. Your gastroenterologist can tell you more about these risks.
For the best possible examination, the colon must be completely empty. You will be asked to temporarily discontinue the use of aspirin products, iron tablets and possibly other medications before the examination. The gastroenterologist will give detailed instructions to follow the day before the procedure, including the use of liquid laxatives and/or pills and fasting that will help ensure your colon is empty of all digested material on the day of the procedure. You should inform the gastroenterologist if you are allergic to any drugs. You will also need someone to drive you to and from the appointment because you will be sedated and not allowed to drive after the screening.
Preparation for a colonoscopy is certainly inconvenient, and the laxative materials you are asked to swallow or drink can make someone slightly queasy for a few minutes. This usually does not last long and is a small price to pay to save your life from colon cancer. Also, if prep does make you feel nauseated, tell your gastroenterologist. There are other choices that can be made for you next time that might help alleviate that inconvenience. Check out our colonoscopy prep page for tips and tricks to make the prep day more tolerable.
Virtual colonoscopy is slowly becoming available, but it is still in its very early stages, so availability is very limited. Also, virtual colonoscopy has its limitations. It doesn’t eliminate the colon-emptying preparation steps; you must still do that prep. But its primary limitation is that it can’t remove any polyps found, and it is not preventive. If polyps and other abnormalities are seen during a virtual colonoscopy, a traditional colonoscopy must be scheduled to remove them, requiring a second prep and procedure appointment. Last, there are concerns being expressed about the amount of radiation received during a virtual colonoscopy.
Since colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., the recommendation is not to wait to get your colonoscopy if you presently meet screening guidelines. If no polyps are found and if this technology progresses, your next colonoscopy could be a virtual colonoscopy.