Understanding Your Colonoscopy Results
Colonoscopy is considered to be the “gold standard” for colorectal cancer screening — not only is it the most effective screening test available, it’s the only one that can actually prevent future cases of colon cancer. Colonoscopy allows doctors to identify potentially cancerous polyps (abnormal growths inside the colon) and remove them at the same time, significantly reducing one’s risk of developing colorectal cancer.
But the results of a colonoscopy can sometimes leave patients confused. That’s partially because polyps are common in older adults, and although they’re typically benign (noncancerous), some types of polyps are more likely to turn into cancer than others. The presence of polyps in the colon does not necessarily mean that colorectal cancer was found. In this article, we’ll walk you through why your doctor may have recommended that you get a colonoscopy, and what the results of this procedure mean.
Why is a Colonoscopy Done?
To screen for colon cancer — Colonoscopies are most commonly known for their role in colon cancer screening. If you’re over 50 years old or have additional risk factors for colon cancer beyond age, such as family history, your doctor will probably recommend a colonoscopy.
To explore the cause of certain gastrointestinal symptoms — During a colonoscopy, a gastroenterologist examines the intestines for causes of certain symptoms, such as abdominal pain, blood in the stool, or a change in bowel habits. These symptoms, although sometimes associated with colon cancer, may also be present other conditions of the gastrointestinal system, like irritable bowel syndrome. A colonoscopy is an important diagnostic tool in patients who are having GI symptoms.
To look for additional polyps — If your doctor has identified and removed polyps in a previous colonoscopy, he/she may recommend that you have a follow-up procedure to look for any additional polyps or polyps that may have developed since your last colonoscopy.
When Are the Results of a Colonoscopy Available?
The time it takes to receive the results may depend on the findings. For instance, if your gastroenterologist did not find any polyps and everything appeared normal, then you’ll be told so immediately following the procedure. If your doctor finds polyps and removes them for further testing, you will also be informed, but you may need to wait up to two weeks to receive the final pathology results.
What Do the Results of My Colonoscopy Mean?
A negative colonoscopy result indicates that your gastroenterologist did not find anything abnormal that resembles precancer or cancer in your colon. If your colonoscopy results are negative, your doctor will give you a recommended timeline for your next colonoscopy. This typically will be at 10 years or 5 years if you have a significant family history of colon cancer.
A positive colonoscopy result indicates that your gastroenterologist found polyps or abnormal tissue that may indicate a cancer or a precancerous lesion. If polyps are found in the colon, your doctor will remove them and send them to a laboratory for additional testing. These tests determine whether the polyps are benign (noncancerous), malignant (cancerous), or precancerous. Patients should not be alarmed if precancerous polyps are removed from their colon during a colonoscopy. They do need to make note and adhere to the recommended timing for a follow up colonoscopy because they are more likely to form more polyps in the future.
The timing of a follow up colonoscopy exam depends of several factors including the patients age, family history of colon cancer, quality of the bowel prep and the presence of polyps. If polyps are found factors such as the number, size and pathologic type will be considered in the timing for a follow exam. Assuming the patients bowel prep was adequate most follow up time periods will be either 3 years, 5 years or 10 years. Your doctor will discuss the specific timing of your exam with you.
When to Consult Your Doctor
If you have any questions regarding your colonoscopy results, talk to your doctor for clarification. Your doctor will help you understand why he/she recommends getting a regular colonoscopy based on your personal health history and results from your previous colonoscopy. Furthermore, if you develop new symptoms, like a change in bowel habits or rectal bleeding, call your doctor immediately to schedule an appointment.