Being Well

Having a Colonoscopy Procedure? What to Expect

Having a colonoscopy procedure is important to preventing colorectal cancer, but it's also nerve-racking. Ease your fears below, as a doctor at UVA goes over what to expect at your first colonoscopy.

March is colon cancer awareness month, and doctors are focused on performing screening tests to help detect intestinal cancer risk factors early. You’ve probably heard of a colonoscopy procedure, and while you may be dreading it, this common procedure is an essential step in preventing colon cancer.

A colonoscopy allows your doctor to view the interior of your large intestine, colon and rectum. Your doctor looks for polyps, which are small growths that are likely to turn into cancer over time. Colonoscopies are usually performed every 10 years, unless you have certain risk factors that make it more likely you’ll develop colon cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. In most cases, a colonoscopy takes no more than half an hour. And while you may not be excited about it, this screening can truly help save your life.

The Procedure

There are many ways to prepare your bowel for your colonoscopy procedure, but all involve emptying your bowel as completely as possible. Before a colonoscopy, you’ll be given a bowel prep solution to drink. After drinking the solution, you’ll need to stay near a bathroom — the only way to get a clean colon is to flush it out.

Dr. Cynthia Yoshida, a gastroenterologist at UVA Health System, says, “Your doctor will also tell you about any dietary or medication changes you need to make, and when before your procedure you should make them. For instance, we recommend you avoid eating or drinking anything colored red in the week before your procedure. This is because the red dye or coloring looks like blood in your colon.”

On the day of your procedure, you may receive medications to help you relax and drift off to sleep. Your doctor will use a thin, flexible tube called a colonoscope to view the interior of your large intestine. If polyps are identified, they are removed immediately. You’ll need someone to drive you home from your doctor’s office, as medications you receive may interfere with your ability to drive.

Common Colonoscopy Questions

Unfortunately, there are a lot of misconceptions about colonoscopies. Dr. Yoshida answers some common questions you may have:

Will it hurt?

Your doctor’s goal is to prevent pain as much as possible. Most people receive medication to help prevent any discomfort. Modern colonoscopies use carbon dioxide to distend, or stretch, the intestines. This distention sometimes causes discomfort or cramping, and is usually only felt as your procedure is beginning.

When your doctor removes the colonoscope, you may feel as though you’re having a bowel movement. This is normal, and you should not experience any pain.

How will you ensure my privacy?

“Your privacy is always a priority. At UVA, we provide totally private pre- and post-op rooms. We make sure to cover your body completely when we position you for your procedure, only exposing areas necessary to perform your colonoscopy procedure. We understand this isn’t a procedure you necessarily want to have, but we work hard to make sure you have the best possible experience,” says Dr. Yoshida.

How do I know you’re the right doctor for the job?

In order to have your procedure performed correctly — and get accurate results — a doctor with extensive experience should perform it. Gastroenterologists are rated by how accurately they identify intestinal polyps. This is called the adenoma detection rate (ADR).

Your doctor should be able to immediately tell you his or her adenoma detection rate. If they can’t, you need to find another doctor to perform your colonoscopy.

Now that you’re armed with this information, you should feel more confident talking to your doctor and having this important procedure.

The doctors at UVA Cancer Center will help you through the process of colorectal cancer screening. Talk to a doctor today.

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Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN