March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month, so there’s no better time to get the facts on how to prevent or detect it early.
Colorectal cancer affects men and women of all racial and ethnic groups, and is most often found in people aged 50 years or older. In the U.S., it is the third most common cancer for both men and women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Regular colorectal screening is one of the most powerful weapons for preventing colorectal cancer and finding it at its early stages when it’s easier to treat,” says Stephen Paul, M.D., gastroenterologist with Digestive Healthcare Associates in Valparaiso.
Where to begin
Begin with your family doctor who will recommend a screening schedule that’s right for you, given your health and family history.
What to expect
Preparing for a colonoscopy begins 24 hours before the screening with a completely liquid diet and a laxative solution designed to clean the colon for better viewing. “There will be many trips to the bathroom, but preparation has gotten better over the years. In the past, patients drank salty and bitter solutions, but now we’re able to give them the choice of their favorite flavor of Gatorade,” explains Dr. Paul.
Dr. Paul and his colleagues perform colonoscopies at Porter’s Center for Digestive Health, 2206 Roosevelt Road in Valparaiso. Patients arrive 20 to 30 minutes prior to the procedure, change into a gown, and meet with a nurse to check blood pressure and review medications before an IV is started. Patients are then offered warm blankets and taken to the procedure room.
Once in the procedure room, the patient receives sedation medication that relaxes them and creates a dream state, yet the patient remains awake for the procedure. “The sedation allows a patient to respond to gentle instructions, but most people won’t remember the procedure at all once it’s over,” says Dr. Paul.
The colonoscopy itself takes about 20 to 30 minutes. Once the patient is comfortable, the doctor gently uses a flexible tube (about the size of an index finger) to view the inside walls of the colon. Air is gently inserted into the colon to inflate the walls for better viewing. The doctor can see the images live on a TV screen as the scope travels along about three feet of colon.
The colonoscopy reveals polyps or growths along the lining of the colon, as well as any inflammation, ulcerations or diverticula (pockets) along the surface. The doctor can take photos of any abnormalities and even remove small polyps by using a tiny snare. Any tissue removed is tested for cancer or abnormalities. “The procedure isn’t painful. The sedation helps patients with any discomfort they may feel,” says Dr. Paul.
Patients recover in a private bay for about 20 to 30 minutes. Most patients may stand and visit the bathroom if they wish. They may experience some residual gas and minor cramping from the air that was inserted into the colon. Because of the sedation, patients must have someone drive them home or accompany them on public transportation.
The Good News
Results of your colonoscopy are available quickly. “I send patients home with a discharge sheet of all the results and what to expect. If any tissue samples or polyps are taken, we will share the results from pathology within 48 to 72 hours,” says Dr. Paul. “Patients should take comfort in the fact that less than 1 percent of polyps are cancerous when we catch them early.” The other good news is that colonoscopies are recommended just every 10 years in most cases.
Dr. Paul is a gastroenterologist and an independent member of the medical staff at Porter Regional Hospital. To schedule an appointment for a colonoscopy with one of the gastroenterologists on Porter’s Medical Staff, call the Center’s screening coordinator at 219-464-9507.