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Three Reasons Not to Delay a Colonoscopy

Advance With MUSC Health
March 10, 2023
Stock photo of patient on their side during a colonoscopy.

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and there are vital reasons you should get a colonoscopy (a screening for colon cancer) as recommended by your doctor. During a colonoscopy, doctors are able to identify and remove polyps, which are abnormal growths in the lining of the colon that can slowly develop into cancer. Here, one MUSC Health expert pleads the case for patients to go ahead and get that simpler-than-ever, preventative screening.

“I cannot emphasize enough how easy it is now to get a colonoscopy,” says Dr. Virgilio George of MUSC Hollings Cancer Center with almost urgent emphasis. “It’s easy, painless, and quick — in and out.

“Plus, it will be the greatest nap you’ve had in years!” promises Dr. George. And, finally, “Finding colon polyps early, before they can become cancerous, can save your life. That’s a top reason to have a colonoscopy.”

Colonoscopy Misconceptions

As MUSC Health's Division of Colorectal Surgery’s chief surgeon, Dr. George is passionate about promoting the benefits of colonoscopy screenings and eager to dispel fears and misconceptions.

“Most people fear the bowel preparation and might be worried about test results,” he says. “But it’s easier than ever to get a colonoscopy thanks to more prep options and a painless procedure.”

If you’re among the many avoiding a colonoscopy based on what you’ve heard about having to force down large amounts of sickly liquids beforehand, prepare to be pleasantly surprised. New options include less and better-tasting prep fluids as well as the option to take a few pills with water instead. A colonoscopy does require taking some time off — about a day — and a change in diet to prepare and clear your bowels. Not a big investment of time, says Dr. George, when you consider the benefits.

Dr. George has found that some patients will put off the procedure “because they think something bad will happen and worry they’ll end with an ostomy bag if cancer is found.” But in the majority of cases in which cancer is detected early, bowel function can be fully restored.

“Cancers found early are both treatable and curable. That’s because technology has enabled early detection of polyps so we can remove them during the colonoscopy before they become a cancer,” says Dr. George.

Colon Cancer Prevention and Screening

Colon cancer can be prevented through routine screenings, a healthy diet, and regular exercise. Avoid smoking and limit alcohol, says Dr. George.

The third most common cancer diagnosed in the United States, colorectal cancer is on the rise in people under age 50, a trend that recently prompted the recommendation for the first screening to be lowered to age 45. Costs are generally covered by Medicaid, Medicare, and most insurance plans.

“Diagnosis of patients under 45 years old is increasing,” says Dr. George. “So please,” he says, “do not put off a colonoscopy.”

Symptoms of Colon Cancer

Signs and symptoms of colon cancer include:

  • Persistent belly pain such as cramps or gas
  • Blood in stools
  • Any change in bowel movements such as unexplained diarrhea or severe constipation
  • Unexplained weight loss

Colon cancer is called a silent disease, cautions Dr. George, because it often presents no symptoms during its early stages. “This is why getting a colonoscopy on time, when your provider tells you to, is so important.”

Colon Cancer Treatment

There are many treatments to help control colon cancer, including surgery, radiation therapy and drug treatments such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy.

Nearly all cases of colon cancer detected early can be completely cured with surgery, says Dr. George, who leads the multidisciplinary team at Hollings. Double board certified in General Surgery and Colorectal Surgery, surgeons in the Division of Colorectal Surgery are recognized for their pioneering efforts and extensive experience in minimally invasive surgery and state-of-the-art robotic and laparoscopic technologies for colorectal cancer.

Hollings is one of only 22 centers in the country to earn a three-year accreditation from the National Accreditation Program for Rectal Cancer and the only in South Carolina, spotlighting the center as a national leader in treating cancers of the digestive system.

“When being cared for at a facility like MUSC, where there is a high surgical volume and expert multidisciplinary team, patients undergoing treatment for colorectal cancer are shown to have better outcomes, including fewer complications,” says Dr. George.

Colon Cancer Genetic Predisposition

The In Our DNA SC project uses genetic testing to identify patients at higher risk for heart disease and certain cancers, including colorectal cancer. Screening and disease management can be optimized to prevent certain types of cancer or find them at an earlier and more treatable stage, says Dr. George. Hollings Hereditary Cancer Clinic, a collaboration between Hollings and In Our DNA SC community health project, is designed to provide optimal care for patients with genetic mutations.

“Patients who learn they have a genetic predisposition for colorectal cancer benefit from this specialized clinic at MUSC, where they can manage or potentially decrease their risk,” he notes. One of the first such clinics in the nation, the Hereditary Cancer Clinic offers patients ongoing care with comprehensive and effective management from a team of specialists in one location.

To learn more, including how to schedule a colonoscopy, call MUSC Hollings Cancer Center at 843-792-9300.