What to Expect From a Colonoscopy

While many patients are nervous, doctors say it isn't as scary as some believe

As part of Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, Americans are being urged to schedule a colonoscopy to check for this common and highly preventable type of cancer.But many people are too nervous or scared to have the important screening test, which is recommended if you're age 50 or older or have a family history of colorectal cancer.

A colonoscopy isn't as scary as some people believe, says Dr. Dale Burleson, a colorectal surgeon at Baylor Medical Center at Frisco.

The most difficult part of the procedure may be the preparation, when patients take a laxative pill or drink to "flush" the colon. This is necessary to make sure the colon is as clean as possible so that the doctor gets the best possible view of the colon.

The preparation isn't "nearly as bad as it's made out to be. It only takes a few hours. By the time you're ready for bed, you're all set," Burleson said in a Baylor news release.

The colonoscopy exam itself is probably the easiest part. "The patient is awake, but with sedation, there's little or no discomfort. Many patients have told me it wasn't nearly as scary as they expected," Burleson said.

During the procedure, a long, flexible tube with a tiny video camera is inserted into the colon. The camera sends images to a monitor viewed by the doctor. The images can be printed and stored in a computer.

A colonoscopy is used to look for inflammation, bleeding, ulcers, changes in color, and small growths of tissue called polyps. Most polyps are noncancerous, but they are generally removed during a colonoscopy, and a biopsy is taken to determine if they're benign or malignant.

"The normal lining of the colon should look like the inside of a cheek, completely smooth. We're looking for anything that might signal a digestive condition or early signs of cancer," Burleson said.

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