The key to preventing colorectal cancer is early detection. That’s why patients, typically starting at age 50 (or earlier if you have a family history or increased risk), are recommended to get a routine colonoscopy. In honor of March being Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, we’ve answered some Frequently Asked Questions about colorectal cancer screenings.

What happens during a colonoscopy?
Colorectal cancers and early growths, or polyps, are best detected by having a colonoscopy. The test itself is performed by a specialist, usually in an outpatient department, who uses a small, lighted, flexible tube to look at the bowel and rectum. The test only takes 10-20 minutes to perform, and your doctor may give you sedation for the test, although you are not put under anesthesia. While there is some mild discomfort during the screening, it is usually compared to uncomfortable gas, and does not last long.

Do I need to prepare for my colon screening?
Before the doctor can look at the sides of the colon to catch any signs of cancer, it is important for the colon to be cleaned out, usually by taking a liquid diet and strong laxatives a day or two prior to the test. It is important for instructions to be followed exactly so the specialist can see every part of your colon. Please talk to your provider about this important prep work before your colonoscopy.

Are there any other screening options?
NHA patients are encouraged to get their colonoscopies as recommended by their providers. A referral to a specialist is needed for the procedure. If a delay in getting the colonoscopy scheduled occurs, or a colonoscopy cannot be tolerated, patients have the option for a Fecal Occult Blood test to be performed. This is merely a stool sample that is sent in to the lab to determine if microscopic bleeding is occurring in the colon. It is not as helpful in diagnosing colorectal cancer, but if positive, further testing should be performed.

What are the warning signs for colorectal cancer?
The American Cancer Society states that colorectal cancer may not cause symptoms right away. However, the following signs require a visit to your provider:

  • A change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation, or narrowing of the stool, that lasts for more than a few days
  • A feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that is not relieved by having one
  • Rectal bleeding with bright red blood
  • Blood in the stool, which may make the stool look dark
  • Cramping or abdominal pain
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Unintended weight loss

Talk to your NHA provider about scheduling a routine colonoscopy or other colorectal cancer screening today. For additional information about colorectal cancer and screening, visit the American Cancer Society’s website.