Health News Articles

Turning 50? Take Charge of Your Health

Jul 1, 2014

While you are commemorating this milestone, take some time to celebrate your health as well by having a simple screening test that could save your life—a colonoscopy. You’ll be in excellent company. Since 1998, the rate of colorectal cancer has declined by nearly 3 percent every year, thanks largely to an increase in colonoscopy screenings.

“Of all the ways we can screen for colorectal cancer, colonoscopy is the gold standard, because it’s the only test that can detect and remove precancerous polyps,” notes Eric Shen, MD, Section Chief of Gastroenterology at University Medical Center of Princeton (UMCP). In other words, a colonoscopy can actually prevent cancer from developing.

How it Works
While the idea of the test makes some patients nervous, it’s really very simple. The day before screening, patients prepare by cleaning out the colon to make sure that nothing obscures the doctor’s view. Typically, colonoscopy prep involves drinking a liquid laxative. A new regimen known as split dosing—taking half the laxative the night before the procedure and the other half the next day—has made prep both more effective for the doctor and easier on the patient.

The test itself involves the examination of the large intestine and a portion of the small intestine with a tiny camera attached to a flexible tube called a colonoscope. It’s almost always done under some form of sedation—either full sedation or a state of semi-consciousness known as twilight sleep—which renders it virtually painless.

The procedure usually takes 15–25 minutes, during which the doctor examines the intestine for polyps—small growths known as adenomas that are either benign or precancerous—and removes them. After the test, any polyps removed will be sent away to be biopsied. Even if some are found to be precancerous, patients usually need no additional treatment other than more frequent colonoscopies.

“Depending on how many of the polyps have a higher potential to become cancerous, patients may have to come back sooner for their next colonoscopy,” says Dr. Shen, who is board certified in gastroenterology.

When to Screen
The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that men and women at average risk for developing colon cancer have their initial colonoscopy at age 50 and then every 10 years after if no polyps are found. The exceptions are people with a family history of colorectal cancer or polyps, those who’ve already had precancerous polyps removed, or patients suffering from a chronic condition like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. (If you’re in any of these groups, ask your gastroenterologist how often you should be screened.)

Colonoscopy is not only a screening tool. It may also be used as a diagnostic test for patients experiencing symptoms such as unexplained weight loss, severe abdominal pain, blood in the stool or profuse diarrhea.

After the procedure, says Dr. Shen, patients typically rest at home and return to work the next day.

For assistance finding a gastroenterologist affiliated with Princeton HealthCare System, call 1.888.PHCS4YOU (1.888.742.7496) or visit