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People tend to freak out when colonoscopy is mentioned. This is understandable. Cancer is one of the most fearsome things on earth and anything that relates to any form of it will surely make people cringe.

However uncomfortable it may seem, it is really important to talk about colonoscopy: what it is, who needs it, and the procedures involved.

A better understanding of what the process is and why it is essential for certain individuals will help to reduce the anxiety that people feel when it is mentioned.

It is a lifesaving procedure that needs to be understood properly, so here are important things you need to know:


What Exactly Is A Colonoscopy?

Colonoscopy is a medical examination/technique that allows doctors to see inside the large intestine in order to diagnose and possibly treat any medical problem in the colon.

While it is a particularly recommended procedure in the prevention, early detection, and treatment of colon cancer, it is also useful in determining other problems in the colon such as inflamed tissues, ulcers, and abnormal growths including polyps.

The prominent role of the exam in the prevention of cancer has overshadowed most of these other benefits, but it is worth it in every sense. Colon cancer is a deadly condition and any procedure that can help in its prevention must be given the proper consideration it deserves. 


How Does A Colonoscopy Prevent Cancer?

To some, it can be a bit perplexing how a procedure can prevent cancer. It is necessary, therefore, to give a little background information on how colon cancer develops and establish thereafter how a colonoscopy can help in its prevention.

Mostly, colon cancer develops from abnormal growths in the lining of the colon. These growths are referred to as polyps. By detecting polyps in time, doctors are able to remove them before they turn to colon cancer. This is basically how colonoscopy prevents colon cancer.


What Are Polyps?

Polyps can best be described as growth in the mucous membrane. They are not restricted to the colon. Polyps can develop at different parts of the body but they are mostly found in the colon, nose, stomach, and uterus. They are formed as a result of irritation of the mucous membrane tissue.

They may start as a protective response to certain conditions but will eventually become problematic. While most polyps are benign (meaning that they are non-cancerous), they still have the tendency to become malignant (cancerous) due to abnormal cell growth.

Ideally, the bigger the size of the polyps, the greater the chances of it becoming cancerous. Most colon cancers start as polyps, so once doctors detect polyps during colonoscopy, they remove them for preventive reasons.

Who Is A Candidate For Colonoscopy?

A doctor will normally recommend colonoscopy when he/she feels a patient may be at risk of colon cancer or any other problem of the colon. There is a certain group of individuals, however, that are considered to be at greater risk for colon cancer. Such individuals under the group will need a colonoscopy more than others.

The recommended guidelines of the American Cancer Society is as follows:

  • Men and women without personal or family history of polyps or cancer should have a colonoscopy once in ten years from the age of 50.
  • African-American men and women are at greater risk and should have their first colonoscopy earlier at the age of 45 and follow it up on 8 years interval.

Individuals who are considered at greater risk of colon cancer are generally expected to take the initial colonoscopy earlier and take subsequent ones more frequently. Risk factors can be summarised as:

  • The family history of polyps or cancer
  • A previous case(s) of polyps
  • Some diseases of the bowel including Crohn’s disease.

Colon cancer does not show early signs. A colonoscopy is the best way to stay vigilant and prevent it. There are some signs, however, that should make you seek medical attention such as sustained significant changes in bowel habit and blood in the stool.


What To Expect

Colonoscopy is not a very complex procedure but demands a lot in order for it to be completely successful. We will summarise some of the things you should expect before, during, and after the procedure.



Your colon needs to be completely empty in order for your doctor to have a clear view of the colon: this is the basis for the success of the exam. The preparation phase involves ways of ensuring this. About two days before the scheduled procedure, you will have to adjust to a clear-liquid diet.

A laxative will also be prescribed to clear your digestive tract of any solid matter that may obstruct the view of your doctor during colonoscopy. No food or drink is expected to be taken after midnight before the day of the procedure.

An enema may be recommended for some patients, but this is not compulsory for all.



Ideally, the actual colonoscopy procedure will last between 30 – 60 minutes. Once you follow the preparatory guideline, the procedure will be smooth.

A sedative will be administered at first. You will be conscious to an extent, but you may forget some details of the procedure afterwards. It is not a painful procedure and the sedative will help to completely block pain.

When the sedative has taken effect, the doctor will insert the colonoscope, a long flexible instrument that is about half-inch in diameter. The instrument has tiny light and camera on the end and is inserted through the rectum. As has been stated earlier, the procedure is not a painful one – it may be a little uncomfortable though.

If some polyps are found during the procedure, it will be removed. If the doctor sees some other tissues that appear abnormal, he/she will likely excise a sample for biopsy.


After The Procedure

Complications in colonoscopy are quite rare. After the procedure, however, you may experience cramping, gas, and mild pains, but they are usually short-lived. In the recovery room, you will be encouraged to pass gas as it can be really helpful in reducing the other side effects.

You can go back home after a few hours in the recovery room. It is not advisable that you drive, however, as the effect of the sedative may still take a little longer to wear completely. You will be advised by the doctor to take things easy throughout the day.

Follow the doctors discharge orders religiously and pay close attention to your body. If you feel too weak, develop a fever or feel there is any need to contact your doctor, do that immediately.


Earlier Is Better

It is understandable that you do not look forward to colonoscopy – nobody does. It is important, however, that you do it when there is a need for it. Once you are 50 years, you need to keep to the recommended intervals for screening.

Many adults tend to procrastinate when it comes to scheduling the procedure. There is absolutely no need for that. It is a necessary procedure that can save your life and needs to be done just once in 10 years or 8 years for some groups.

It is also important to note here that the colonoscopy procedure has improved tremendously over the years. It is no longer as uncomfortable as it used to be and it has become much more reliable.

When polyps or colon cancer are detected and treated at the initial stage, you will have a better chance to enjoy a healthy life. Once you are due for a colonoscopy, do not waste time in scheduling the procedure. We cannot emphasize enough the importance of the colonoscopy.

Even if you are not due for colonoscopy and notice signs such as changes in bowel habit or blood in your stool, it is important that you talk to a gastroenterologist.


Contact Dr Deetlefs

Room 109 Mediclinic Milnerton
Cnr Koeberg & Racecourse Roads
Cape Town
Tel: 021 551 8678

Monday – Friday: 8 AM to 4 PM

Additional address for Endoscopic Procedures:

Dr Eduan Deetlefs Inc
The Park Building, (opp, Vincent Pallotti Hospital)
Suite 304, 3rd Floor,
Park Road
Tel: 021 202 0626

Email: info @ gidoc.co.za

Vincent Pallotti Office hours:
8am to 3pm, 
Fridays:  Procedure day – in rooms scope facility 7am to 4pm.

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© Dr. Eduan Deetlefs, Registered Gastroenterologist, GI Doc Cape Town

Our website information is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please consult a doctor about your specific condition. Only a trained physician can determine an accurate diagnosis and proper treatment.