Getting to the bottom of colonoscopies

Colorectal cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women in the United States and the second-leading cause in men, but it doesn’t need to be. In fact, it’s one of the few cancers that can be prevented by appropriate screening.

“Colonoscopies are life-saving, preventive tests,” says Dr. Kevin Leung, a gastroenterologist with Digestive Health Specialists who performs colonoscopies at MultiCare Covington Medical Center.

A colonoscopy can reduce the risk of death from colorectal cancer by more than 50 percent, yet only one-third of adults are getting screened.

Because colorectal cancer typically doesn’t have any symptoms, a colonoscopy is the only way to find the disease while it’s still treatable.

“Colorectal cancer discovered early in its course is completely curable, and the only way to do that is to get screened,” says Dr. Eric Johnson, a colon and rectal surgeon with MultiCare Colon and Rectal Surgery.

Starting at age 50, men and women should get a colonoscopy every 10 years, unless they’re at high risk for colorectal cancer or have a condition that needs to be monitored.

Is the procedure really as bad as its reputation would suggest? In a nutshell, no. Yet fears and misconceptions persist. Here are the top five:

  1. Colonoscopies aren’t safe — and they might hurt.

One of the most common concerns people have is that something will go wrong during a colonoscopy.
“It’s one of the safest procedures that we do,” says Johnson.

“Colonoscopies aren’t painful, just inconvenient,” says Leung. “With current medications, people are quite comfortable.”

A colonoscopy is a benign procedure performed in an outpatient setting, and only takes about 20–30 minutes. Most patients are mildly sedated and don’t feel any pain.

  1. I’m afraid to get a colonoscopy in case I get diagnosed with cancer.

“A colonoscopy in no way increases your chances of being diagnosed with cancer,” says Leung. “But it can prevent cancer by finding polyps.”

Although one of the aims of colonoscopy is to detect colorectal cancer, the primary purpose is to detect polyps — small growths on the surface of the colon — that could become cancerous. These polyps occur in about 30 percent of the population.

During a colonoscopy, a long, flexible tube is inserted into the anus to examine the entire rectum and colon with a viewing scope. If polyps are detected, they are easily removed while the procedure is taking place to prevent cancer from occurring.

  1. It’s too embarrassing.

Physicians and nurses understand that a colonoscopy is a potentially embarrassing experience for patients and do all they can to make them comfortable — from providing a curtain for undressing, a private room, blankets to stay warm and covered, and the option of selecting a male or female physician.

It can also help to remember that physicians perform thousands of colonoscopies each year and consider the colon the same way they would any other organ.

  1. I won’t be able to drink the prep solution.

The purpose of prep solution is to cleanse the colon so that even the smallest of polyps can be identified and removed during the colonoscopy.

Once upon a time, patients were required to drink a gallon of prep solution the day before the procedure.
Today, most patients drink small-volume preps in split doses – one taken the night before and one the morning of the colonoscopy. This approach is much easier on patients.

  1. I’ll have to take a lot of time off work.

Most people only need to miss one day of work for a colonoscopy.

“The prep time is not usually time you can be productive,” says Leung. But, he points out, you can usually wait until the evening to take the first dose of prep solution, so missing work the day before is not usually necessary.

The day of the colonoscopy is spent at the clinic and recovering from sedation at home, but there are typically no ill effects from the procedure. Most people return to work the next day.

Bottom line: Don’t skip out on screening. According to the American Cancer Society, the lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is about 5 percent for men and 4.5 percent for women. “That doesn’t sound like much,” says Leung, “But that’s a 1 in 20 chance.”


This article was produced by MultiCare Health System, a not-for-profit healthcare organization with services in Pierce,

If you haven’t already, make a date to undergo a potentially life-saving colonoscopy.

King, Thurston and Kitsap counties.