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Ask the Doctor


Bottom Line: screenings are vital to protecting against colon cancer

Colon cancer is the second most common cause of cancer deaths and takes more lives each year than breast and prostate cancer. It doesn't have to be. If everyone aged 50 years and older had regular screening tests, at least 60 percent of deaths from colon cancer could be prevented.

For many women (and men) the idea of getting a colonoscopy - the most common screening procedure for colon cancer - ranks right up there with having a root canal. Fear of the unknown and common myths may prevent you from getting this important screening. St. Luke's Gastrointestinal (GI) Lab staff sort out myth from fact and offer tips on what to expect.

Why is a colonoscopy needed?
Abnormal cells or polyps can develop in the colon or rectum. Most polyps are harmless, but some are not. Early detection can help prevent colorectal cancer by finding and removing polyps before they have a chance to turn into cancer. Colon cancer screening is covered by most insurance plans and Medicare.

Who should get a colonoscopy?
Starting at age 50, colonoscopies are recommended every 10 years for all adults at average risk for colorectal cancer. Screening is also recommended for anyone with a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease or a personal or family history of colorectal cancer or polyps.

Myth: A colonoscopy is painful and embarrassing.
Fact: Actually, during the procedure itself you feel no pain. Total intravenous anesthesia is used, which means you are fully asleep for the procedure. It is done in a comfortable, private room. During the procedure, a thin tube (colonoscope) with a tiny lens is inserted through the anus and into the colon. It allows the physician to see the inside of the colon (large intestine) on a screen and, if necessary, remove tissue samples (biopsy) or polyps using tiny tools inserted through the scope.

Myth: The preparation is the worst part.
Fact: This is probably true, but it's a small price to pay for helping prevent cancer. You will be given a preparation plan from the gastroenterologist's (GI doctor) office to help empty and clean your bowel. You will need to consume only clear liquids the day before the procedure, and start the cleansing prep midday. The cleansing preps used today are relatively tasteless.

Some helpful tips: (1) Before starting the prep, drink a lot of clear liquids to help you stay hydrated. This will actually help you feel better and recover more quickly after the procedure. (2) If you're not used to consuming so much liquid, pace yourself with the prep so you don't get that over-full feeling. (3) Splurge on extra soft toilet paper.

Myth: It's a hassle to schedule a GI doctor appointment before the procedure.
Fact: In most cases, you actually don't need to see a GI doctor before your colonoscopy. Ask your primary care physician to recommend a GI doctor or call St. Luke's Physician Referral Service (314-205-6060). Then call the GI doctor's office and they will schedule your procedure. You can choose where to have your procedure, so if you prefer a hospital GI Lab, be sure to request that.

Bottom Line: Getting regular colonoscopies is just as important to your health and wellness plan as getting your annual mammogram or making regular visits to your gynecologist.

St. Luke's offers a nationally-recognized program that ranks top 10% in the nation for GI Medical Treatment (Healthgrades, 2010 - 2014).