You’ll Need Your First Colonoscopy Sooner Than You Think

Colonoscopy is not fun. Preparing for the first involves an entire day of drinking only fluids and laxatives to have a bowel movement in less than 24 hours. Then, once your bowels are completely empty, you are sedated so doctors can attach a flexible camera to your backside and take pictures of your anatomy that would normally never see the light of day.

As frustrating as this experience may be, colonoscopy is an extremely valuable tool for early detection of colon and rectal cancer when treatment is much more effective. Given that colorectal cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States, it is extremely important to catch it sooner rather than later.

Colon cancer is on the rise in young people

In 2010, 5% of colon cancers and 9% of rectal cancers were in patients under 50 years of age. In 2020, these numbers have risen to include 11% of colon cancers and 15% of rectal cancers in patients under 50 years of age. Doctors still don’t know why these numbers are rising, but it’s worrying, especially as these are slow-growing cancers that, if caught early, are very treatable.

Given that survival rates for these cancers are much higher than they are detected earlier, there have been recent changes to screening guidelines . Now, instead of prescribing the first colonoscopy at age 50, they recommend starting it at age 45.

Different types of colon cancer screening

You may have heard of other ways to screen for colon cancer , such as stool tests. There are currently three approved stool tests that work by detecting hemoglobin components or anti-hemoglobin antibodies, as well as certain DNA biomarkers. These tests are useful, but they cannot completely replace colonoscopy because stool tests need to be done every few years and are known to give false positive results. If you have a positive stool test, then the next step is a colonoscopy anyway.

The big advantage of a regular elective colonoscopy is that it only needs to be done once every ten years. If doctors find a polyp , which is a slow-growing collection of cells that can develop into colon cancer over time, they can also often be removed during the procedure itself. Considering that 40% of adults over 50 have polyps, there’s a perfectly reasonable chance that at some point in the future, you may also need to have some of them removed.

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