Next to lung cancer and breast cancer, colorectal cancer is one of the most common causes of cancer-related deaths in the United States; in 2023, this is estimated to affect over 50,000 Americans. According to the American Cancer Society, though, thousands of lives per year could be saved if all adults 45 and older were regularly screened with a colonoscopy. Unfortunately, though, too few people participate in colorectal cancer screenings and can’t benefit from the cancer being caught early. There are many reasons why people avoid colonoscopies, and some of these reasons are based on misconceptions.

What Is Colorectal Cancer?

Colorectal cancer is an umbrella term for cancer of the large intestine that develops into either colon cancer or rectal cancer. Like other types of cancer, colorectal cancer begins as a cluster of abnormal cells that have become mutated and are no longer healthy. Along the lining of the large intestine, the most common kind of abnormal growth is called a colon polyp. Most incidences of cancer begin as these precancerous polyps even though the vast majority of polyps overall are benign.

Even when a polyp becomes malignant, though, colorectal cancer typically takes many years to develop into actual cancer. Moreover, any of the symptoms related to cancer growing in the colon or rectum usually don’t present until the cancer is at an advanced stage, long after early detection is still valuable. While there are still many mysteries surrounding precisely how and why cancer develops, there have been a number of risk factors identified after decades of research:

  • Age: In general, people have a higher risk of colon cancer as they get older. Most cases are diagnosed in individuals over the age of 50, and the risk continues to rise with advancing age.
  • Family history: Having either a personal or family history of colorectal cancer or colon polyps increases the risk significantly.
  • Disease: There are some medical conditions that also increase the likelihood of developing cancer. Examples include inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and type 2 diabetes.
  • Lifestyle: Extensive research in recent years has indicated that some lifestyle choices related to diet and physical activity levels can also be risk factors. For instance, a diet high in red and processed meats, low in fiber, and lacking in fruits and vegetables. Additionally, a lack of exercise, obesity, smoking, and excessive alcohol consumption are also associated with a higher risk.

What Is Involved in a Colonoscopy?

A colonoscopy is a minimally invasive procedure performed with a flexible tube device called an endoscope. The tube is inserted through the rectum while the patient is under sedation, and a camera mounted on the end allows the gastroenterologist to directly visualize the inner lining of the colon. When detected, polyps or other abnormalities in some cases can be immediately removed with special tools on the scope. In some cases a tissue sample is taken for a biopsy to determine whether or not the cells are malignant.

Preparation for a colonoscopy usually begins a day or two before the procedure with 24 hours of an all-liquid diet. This ensures that the body continues to get required nutrients while also starting to clear the bowels of solids. This is often combined with taking a special bowel prep solution that has a laxative effect. On the day of the procedure, a sedative is administered that relaxes the patient. After the procedure is complete and any biopsies have been taken, the patient spends a short time in recovery before being able to go home and return to normal activities the next day.

Common Myths and Misconceptions About Colonoscopies

Overall, the colonoscopy is a relatively simple procedure that takes between 30-60 minutes to perform. Yet because of the nature of where the tube goes in and the preparation required before you even arrive, there are many people who experience significant anxiety about going through the process. The truth is, though, that much of this concern is rooted in myths and misconceptions:

  • Myth #1 - Painful: One of the biggest fears related to a colonoscopy is that you’ll have a lot of pain or discomfort during the procedure. With the use of sedation, however, most people only feel minor discomfort that is generally well tolerated.
  • Myth #2 - Only for cancer: While colonoscopies are definitely a crucial tool for detecting colorectal cancer, they also enable the identification and removal of precancerous polyps and other abnormalities that could indicate other conditions.
  • Myth #3 - Only for old people: While the risk of colorectal cancer does increase with age, the overall rate of cancer has been decreasing for adults over the age of 50. At the same time, rates of colorectal cancer have been increasing for adults under the age of 50. Because of this, the most recent guidance is to start getting regular screenings at age 45 or younger if significant risk factors are present.
  • Myth #4 - Better screening options: Alternative methods like stool tests are valuable in some circumstances, but a colonoscopy offers a unique advantage of directly examining the lining of the colon. Also, only a colonoscopy allows the doctor to immediately remove or biopsy a questionable polyp or other growth.
  • Myth #5 - Not needed if no symptoms are present: With colorectal cancer, one of the most dangerous myths is that you only need to get a colonoscopy if you have symptoms of a problem. As noted above, colorectal cancer is a type of cancer that takes a long time to develop. Unlike skin cancer, for example, that has obvious external lesions, there are often no signs of colorectal cancer until it’s in a later stage when treatment options become limited and less likely to work.
  • Myth #6 - Too risky: It’s true that colonoscopies do carry some inherent risks like bleeding, infection, or perforation of the intestinal wall. Such complications are extremely rare, though, and the benefits of early detection and prevention far outweigh these minimal risks.

Schedule a Colon Cancer Screening at Cary Gastro

For gastroenterology clinics and other healthcare providers, the colonoscopy really is the gold standard as far as methods for detecting colorectal cancer in its early stages. There are some aspects of the procedure that can cause some temporary discomfort, but this needs to be viewed as a minor inconvenience compared to avoiding a deadly disease. If you’re 45 or older and haven’t been screened for colorectal cancer, please contact our friendly and dedicated staff at Cary Gastro to request an appointment.