Get the Facts About Colonoscopies

Colorectal cancer is one of the most common cancers in the United States, accounting for roughly 50,000 deaths each year. In 2018 alone more than 140,000 individuals were diagnosed, according to the American Cancer Society.

Fortunately, there’s a safe and effective way to identify precancerous cells and prevent colorectal cancer: the colonoscopy. Research continues to show the clear impact this screening has on saving lives. One recent study found that, among men and women with an average risk of colorectal cancer, colonoscopies reduced the risk of death from colon or rectal cancer by 67 percent.

Still, despite this evidence, many of us are hesitant to schedule our regular screening. Some of us think of the procedure as uncomfortable or embarrassing, or we may want to avoid the seemingly unpleasant prep to clear our intestines. But the more we know the more we’ll understand the push towards these important screenings. Discover the truth about colonoscopies, and why you should schedule a screening today.

Who Needs a Colonoscopy?

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that all adults begin colorectal screenings at age 50 and continue with screenings through age 75. Based on the findings of your results, you may not need to return for another colonoscopy for 5-10 years.

Colonoscopies are not the only screening option to detect colorectal cancer, but it is the most effective. Your primary care provider will discuss screening options, including which is the best for you.

What Should I Expect During a Colonoscopy?

A colonoscopy allows your doctor to see the entire length of your rectum and colon to look for and remove abnormal growths or polyps. You’ll be asked to prepare for the procedure before it’s scheduled. This preparation includes:

  • Emptying the bowels by drinking a prescribed laxative and using enemas
  • Following a liquid-only diet for 24 hours before the procedure

Right before the procedure, you’ll receive sedation to help you relax and go to sleep. Then, your doctor will insert a colonoscope (a flexible, lighted tube with a small video camera on the end) slowly into your rectum and colon. If any polyps or growths are found, your doctor can remove them immediately.

What Are the Symptoms of Colorectal Cancer?

A colonoscopy can identify colorectal cancer before symptoms appear, which improves treatment and outcomes. Common symptoms of colorectal cancer include:

  • Bloating or feeling full
  • Change in bowel habits, including
    • Diarrhea or constipation
    • Feeling as though bowel does not empty completely
    • Blood in stool
    • Stool that is narrower than usual
  • Feeling very tired all the time
  • Frequent gas pains or cramps
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Weight loss

It’s important to note that these symptoms may not necessarily be a result of colorectal cancer. Other health problems can produce similar symptoms, which is why it’s important to contact your physician if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms.

What Are the Risk Factors for Colorectal Cancer?

The main risk factors for colorectal cancer are uncontrollable. They include heredity, family history and personal medical history. Other risk factors include:

  • Diabetes
  • Other controllable factors
    • Alcohol consumption
    • Obesity
    • Processed meat consumption
    • Red meat consumption
    • Smoking
  • Presence of an inflammatory bowel disease (i.e., Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, etc.)

Remember, early detection is your best chance for a cure. You should contact your physician if you’re experiencing symptoms or are at risk for colorectal cancer. If your physician feels it’s appropriate, a screening test such as a colonoscopy may be recommended to rule out the possibility of cancer.

Learn More

Talk to your primary care physician about your risk of colorectal cancer and to determine if you should schedule a colonoscopy. At Winship Cancer Institute, we’re committed to advancing the standard of care for all our patients, including those diagnosed with colon or rectal cancer. Learn more about our colorectal cancer treatment program or schedule an appointment with our gastrointestinal specialists by calling (404) 778-1900.

Talk to Our Nurses

Emory HealthConnection is where registered nurses can help you find a location or specialist that’s right for you. Call 404-778-7777 from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST (M-F).

Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University

Seeing over 17,000 patients a year, Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University is Georgia’s only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center and serves as the coordinating center for cancer research, education and care throughout Emory University.


About Dr. McKenna

Matthew McKenna, MDMatthew T. McKenna, MD, is the director of Emory University’s Division of Preventive Medicine, and also serves as professor of Medicine in Emory’s Department of Family and Preventive Medicine. He has extensive experience in public health and preventive medicine. From 1989 – 2010, he worked for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and before joining the Emory faculty he was the medical director for the Fulton County (the county where the city of Atlanta is located) Department of Health and Wellness from 2010 to 2015.Dr. McKenna is a graduate of the Emory University School of Medicine and he completed his residency in Family Medicine and a post-doctoral fellowship in epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Dr. McKenna joined CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service Program in 1989 and completed the CDC residency in General Preventive Medicine and Public Health in 1992. He subsequently assumed positions of increasing responsibility throughout his career working in a wide range of areas, such as cancer control, tuberculosis, HIV and his last position at CDC was as the director of the Office on Smoking and Health. He is board certified in Family Medicine and Preventive Medicine. Dr. McKenna serves as a volunteer, expert consultant to the Guideline Development Group of the American Cancer Society. That group provided input to the creation of the Colorectal Cancer Screening guidelines that were issued by the Society in May of 2018.

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