Colonoscopy: Long-Term Care

Colorectal cancer is now the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States and is expected to claim the lives of about 53,000 Americans in 2020.

The lifetime risk of developing the disease is about 4%, which translates to nearly 150,000 new cases of colorectal cancer per year. This sobering reality underscores the immense importance of colon cancer screening.

Doctors suggest that people of average risk, who are over the age of 50 get a colonoscopy every 10 years to help prevent or detect early colon cancer.

what to expect during a colonoscopy

 Illustration by Cindy Chung, Verywell

Benefits of Colonoscopy

A colonoscopy is an examination of the inside lining of the colon where colon cancer starts. There are two main benefits of colonoscopies:

  • Detecting early signs of cancer: A colonoscopy can allow your doctor to identify—and then later remove—polyps that can become cancerous over time. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, the removal of cancer-causing polyps may reduce the chance of death from colorectal cancer by a whopping 53 percent.
  • Detecting diseases of the intestinal tract: Getting a colonoscopy can also help detect other gut abnormalities such as inflammatory bowel disease, which includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. Identifying these chronic diseases has a range of benefits, from helping to reduce long term damage—such as scarring, pain, and intestinal blockages—to making it possible for healthcare professionals to suggest simple dietary changes, like eating more fiber. 

Possible Future Procedures

If cancer and polyps are not detected during a colonoscopy, and you're over the age of 50 with average risk, your next colonoscopy will be in 10 years. If colon or rectal cancer is detected, more tests will likely be needed. Possible tests include:

  • Blood tests: Further blood work may help detect a tumor marker, like a carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA).
  • Imaging tests: A PET Scan may be suggested to determine if cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
  • Repeat colonoscopy: It's possible your doctor will ask for a repeat of the test.

It's very important to go to all follow-up appointments to discuss the next steps in your treatment, medication side effects, and the results of any additional exams or tests.

The frequency of your visits will depend on the stage of your disease and the effectiveness of your treatment. Most gastroenterologists suggest a colonoscopy a year after surgery.

The five-year survival rate for colon cancer that has not spread outside of the colon or rectum is 90%.

Lifestyle Adjustments

Immediately after a colonoscopy you may be asked to drink lots of fluids to help you avoid dehydration.

No matter what the results, doctors suggest eating a balanced diet that consists of fruits and vegetables. Regular exercise and quitting unhealthy health habits—like smoking and excessive drinking—are also encouraged. Long-term lifestyle adjustments are usually emphasized even more strongly following an abnormal colonoscopy.

It is important to note that the overwhelming majority of people who have a colonoscopy will not have to endure major lifestyle changes. To limit your overall risk of colorectal cancer healthcare professionals suggest that you do the following:

  • Engage in 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five times per week
  • Quit smoking and excessive drinking
  • Stay active throughout the day (avoid living a sedentary lifestyle)
  • Eat a diet full of fruits and vegetables
  • Limit red meat intake
  • Get to a healthy weight

A Word From VeryWell

While a colonoscopy may not be on your list of favorite things to do, it is an important diagnostic test that should not be ignored. Without it, more people would develop and/or die from colon cancer. In addition to preventing and detecting colon cancer, people with other digestive diseases might never get an accurate diagnosis or effective treatment without a colonoscopy. Most people are surprised at how easy it is, and, when used for colon cancer screening, it may not need to be repeated for 10 years.

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  1. American Cancer Society. Key statistics for colorectal cancer. Updated August 30, 2020

  2. American Cancer Society. Survival rates for colorectal cancer. Updated June 29, 2020.