Q: Dear Healthier Talk,
Should I get a colonoscopy?
I’m 54 years young and in good health. But every time I see my doctor he tells me that I should schedule a colonoscopy.
Since I feel fine I think there’s really no need to get one. You know how the old saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But I’d like to hear a second opinion.
Feeling Fabulous in My 50s, Kissimmee, Florida
A: Dear Feeling Fabulous,
The short answer is yes, at age 50 everyone should get a baseline (first time) colonoscopy. And then another one every 10 years after that.
And now for the longer answer.
If you happen to be at a higher risk for colon cancer because you’re of African American descent… or if you have someone in your family who has had polyps or colon cancer… than an earlier first time exam is typically a good idea.
Your doctor can help you decide when is best in your specific case.
African American’s are at higher risk for colon cancer and are usually advised to have their first baseline exam at 45.
And if you have an immediate relative who has had colon cancer you generally should go in for your first colonoscopy when you’re 10 years younger than that immediate relative was when he or she was diagnosed.
Be aware of big changes in bowel habits
No matter your age if you’re experiencing any troubling digestion problems, such as big changes in your bowel habits, it’s a good idea to talk with your doc about whether or not a colonoscopy is called for.
Big changes might include…
- long term constipation
- long term diarrhea or loose stool
- a major change in the size, shape or consistency of your stool (becoming pencil thin, appearing slimy, or becoming sticky and hard to flush, for example)
In those cases if the problem is persistent and your doc has ruled out common causes such as diet or a stomach bug he may decide a colonoscopy is called for.
Common symptoms of colon cancer include:
- unexplained weight loss
- abdominal pain
- rectal bleeding
If you have any of these symptoms don’t panic, they can also be symptoms of a number of other common conditions. But you should mention them to your doctor.
A colonoscopy can save your life
While it’s true that there’s an epidemic of over screening these days (it’s a disaster), this is NOT one of them.
It’s a fact that PSA tests and mammograms have led to a generation of men and women being subjected to unnecessary procedures and treatments. Folks battling the lifelong side effects of devastating treatments they didn’t need because the cancers never would have hurt them in the first place. But colonscopies–and colon cancer–simply do not fall into this category.
Colonoscopies are safe, quick, painless and most important VERY effective. (Complications such as bleeding are quite rare.)
One long term study published in the New England Journal of Medicine revealed why you shouldn’t be avoiding yours. Data on 2,602 patients tracked for 15 years found that colonoscopies can slash your risk of dying of colon cancer by an astounding 53 percent.
Generally a colonoscopy takes only 30 to 60 minutes, and most people report little to no discomfort.
In fact the prep before the procedure, which typically involves taking a laxative and using an enema to completely clear out your bowels, is reportedly by far the worst part. And let’s be honest, that’s nothing more than a minor inconvenience.
Another analysis found that colonoscopy can slash your risk of dying from colon cancer by an incredible 56 percent.
Plus unlike other types of screenings that too often lead to unnecessary, painful biopsies and dangerous treatments, when a doc spots a polyp or abnormal growth during your colonoscopy he can go ahead and clip it right on the spot and send it off to the lab for testing.
In other words, there’s no need for a second procedure or major operation.
Unlike many prostate tumors for example, colon and rectal cancers are particularly deadly. But catching them early can save lives. The five-year survival rate for colon cancer found early is 90 percent.
The bottom line is colonoscopies can save your butt AND your life.