Colonoscopy: What to Expect and Why They’re Important

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in men and women in the United States, excluding cancers of the skin. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2020, 104,610 new cases of colon cancer and 43,340 new cases of rectal cancer will be diagnosed.

One of the best ways to prevent colorectal cancer from developing is to participate in regular screening. Current recommendations advise that individuals start screening with colonoscopy at age 50, but certain factors may move that timeline up.

Family history of colon cancer or a diagnosis of inflammatory bowel disease are two considerations that should be discussed with one’s doctor in order to determine the appropriate age at which to begin screening.

Demystifying Colonoscopy

While there are plenty of “horror” stories surrounding colonoscopy, the actual procedure itself is painless. “People do get nervous, because it’s a procedure. It’s the unknown. But, it’s painless. I think the biggest concern is the bowel prep,” states Dr. Gretchen Williams, general surgeon at Riverside Healthcare.

Individuals should expect to be on a clear liquid diet for approximately 24 hours before the procedure. Then, the evening prior, individuals consume a laxative in either fluid or pill form. “The key to remember is it’s a marathon. It’s not a sprint, and you just take your time and do the best you can,” adds Dr. Williams.

Patients can elect for sedation, which is administered via an IV. The procedure takes about 20-30 minutes, and then another 30-60 minutes spent in recovery to allow sedation to wear off. Most individuals can return to work or their normal activities the next day.

What Happens After the Procedure?

Should polyps be removed during the procedure, they are sent to the lab to determine if they are cancerous or benign. Results are typically available three to five days later. “When we do these colonoscopies, we like to find them when they’re small, benign, and we can take them out easily,” notes Dr. Williams.

Individuals who are at general risk—no family members with colon cancer, never had colon cancer themselves, and have had a colonoscopy that’s completely, perfectly normal—typically don’t have to repeat the procedure for 10 more years.

“If you had a polyp, depending on what kind of polyp it is, that will determine when we have to do the procedure again. The average is anywhere between three to five years for repeat colonoscopy,” explains Dr. Williams.

An additional screening available is sigmoidoscopy, which does not require full bowel prep and is done without sedation. However, this screening tool isn’t able to look at the entire colon—only the lower part of the colon.

Red Flags & Concerning Symptoms

Individuals who experience any changes in bowel habits prior to the recommended screening timeline should speak to their doctor. Loose stools, constipation, blood in the stool, weight loss, bloating, and abdominal pain are all indicators you should get checked. Some insurance carriers require a referral, which can be obtained from your primary care provider.

The important takeaway is to not wait, even if you’re nervous about the procedure. “Again, I think a lot of the hesitation with a colonoscopy is because people don’t like to spend a lot of time in the restroom. But, whenever we do things in medicine, we always weigh risks and benefits, and the benefits to having a colonoscopy when you should have a colonoscopy are so much better than waiting and finding something out 10 years down the road,” cautions Dr. Williams. “I feel very strongly that people should get this done sooner rather than later.”

Contact your provider to discuss a colonoscopy today.  Need help finding a provider?  Visit or call (855) 404-DOCS (3627)