Colonoscopy – What Do You Know?

By Barbara Cunnings-Versaevel

Not many of us would say that having a colonoscopy is right up there on our fun things to do. I sure can’t. However, if you want to stay on the side of prevention for colorectal cancer, a colonoscopy can be your saviour if this cancer is found early.

According to statistics from the Colorectal Cancer Association of Canada, and I’m sure the statistics are similar for the United States, colorectal cancer is still the second leading cancer killer in Canada. There are no identifiable symptoms in the early stages.

As it progresses, the symptoms –

  • constipation/diarrhea
  • narrow stools
  • abdominal cramps
  • bloody stools
  • unexplained weight loss/loss of appetite
  • sense of fullness
  • nausea & vomiting
  • gas & bloating
  • lethargy/fatigue)

. . . often mimic other illnesses causing delays in diagnosis.

Speaking from the personal experience of my sister, a colonoscopy was done to encourage her husband to have his done. As it turns out, a cancer was detected during the colonoscopy. No symptoms, no cause for concern going into the colonoscopy – just a routine test. Good thing it was done as surgery was needed. What would have happened if this cancer had been allowed to progress until it became noticeable? The outcome would have been so much different. I’m so thankful it was detected early!!

How to Prevent or Reduce your Risk of Colorectal Cancer

As with many cancers, some of the following prevention strategies are lifestyle issues. They require shifts in how we live, our habits and what we eat.

  1. Diet – eat more fruits and vegetables, grains and legumes, milk (at least get your Vitamin C and D if lactose intolerant), limit red and processed meat, drink plenty of fluids (mostly water), eliminate trans fats, substitute with unsaturated fats (olive oil, avocados, salmon, nuts), keep sugar intake low.
  2. Supplemental Nutrients – research indicates that calcium, Vitamin D, Folate (Folic Acid), Fibre, Selenium, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Lycopene, Grape Seed Extract, Resveratrol, Coenzyme Q10, Vitamin E and Vitamin C provide beneficial protection against colorectal cancer.
  3. Body Weight – maintain a healthy body weight appropriate for height and bone structure. You can determine this ratio by calculating your Body Mass Index (BMI) – a measure of body fat based on height and weight. Ideal is between 18.5 and 25. To calculate BMI use this formula (weight/lbs / height/inches x 730 = BMI). Another risk indicator is weight carried around the waistline.
  4. Exercise – engage in regular moderate exercise such as brisk walking, dancing or skating.  More vigorous workouts (running, cycling, aerobics and jumping rope) also benefit. Exercise not only helps with body weight, but also encourages the removal of waste through your intestines.
  5. Metabolic Syndrome – you are at greater risk of colorectal cancer if you have these three conditions (high blood pressure, diabetes and elevated cholesterol).  All can be controlled with the above.
  6. Smoking – not just a risk for lung cancers, but also colorectal cancers. Beware. Stop if you are able.
  7. Alcohol – any alcoholic drink is a risk (beer, wine, spirits). Moderate consumption is suggested – i.e. 2 drinks per day maximum.
  8. Screening – a polyp is the first sign of a problem. By removing polyps, the risk of colorectal cancer is reduced. There are a few different methods of screening:
    1. Fecal Occult Blood Test/Fecal Immunochemical Test – checks for blood in your stool. You would be given a kit by your family doctor.
    2. Barium Enema – liquid injected into colon highlights abnormal spots.
    3. Stool DNA Test – a kit that collects a stool sample for testing
    4. Colonoscopy – a thin tube connected to a video camera inserted into rectum whereby the doctor can see your whole colon.
    5. Virtual Colonoscopy – a computerized tomography that takes pictures of your colon. If anything spotted, you would then be referred for a colonoscopy.
    6. Flexible Sigmoidoscopy – similar to a colonoscopy only with a tiny video camera attached to the tube to look at the rectum and lower part of the colon.

More comprehensive information is available on the Colorectal Cancer Association of Canada site. I have only briefly summarized some of the highlights – points you might want to consider. There are also links to research and other questions you might have.

As always, it is best to be informed. Prevention is the key to not only your well-being but also your ability to take steps to mitigate risk.

You Have Decided To Have a Colonoscopy

  • Get a second opinion
  • Make sure you are confident and comfortable with the doctor administering the colonoscopy
  • Ask questions so you know exactly how to prepare and what to expect
  • Some provinces have longer wait times than others. In Alberta, I’ve known people to have a one year wait depending on where they live.
  • Decide which test you need and are prepared to have administered.

What Happens If the Test Indicates Cancer?

You will then be referred for surgery and/or other treatments. This is the time to get educated. Gather research, talk to others who have undergone treatment for colorectal cancer, decide which treatment plan you wish to have, and know the options with each.

Since I have not had colorectal cancer, I can’t speak from experience. I can only relate what I’ve heard and discussed with my sister and others who have had this cancer. For my sister, it was not an easy journey. Surgery presented some difficulties which resulted in two more surgeries with an ostomy in the middle. This is not always the case, but be aware that there are risks in all surgeries. However, the other alternative – not having surgery – is a greater risk.

Life is always full of risk no matter where we are in our journey. We have to make the best decisions we can with the information we have at hand. That is why I always advise people to be as fully informed as possible. Don’t let the system push you to make instant decisions. You have time. Even a week will give you time to do your research. It may not give you time to get a second opinion, but ask how much time you have – is your situation urgent. Do you have time to do your due diligence?

It Helps To Have a Sense of Humour

One of my class participants sent me a very humorous article, entitled ‘A Journey into my colon – – and yours’, written by Dave Barry a humor columnist. I’m sharing the link because it is too precious to not share. I laughed so hard. I have had a colonoscopy so I can relate.

In life, a good sense of humour carries us a long way. I hear stories all the time about situations that could have been dire turned into manageable with humour.

If you have not had a colonoscopy, consider getting it done. No, it’s not fun, but hey, cancer isn’t fun either. We all have choices and prevention is a lot easier to manage than the end result of ignorance. Choose knowledge.

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