Colon cancer remains one of the biggest killers in the United States, with more than 200,000 cases documented every year. Surprisingly, the disease is normally treated quite easily provided that it’s caught early on. The best way to do that? With a colonoscopy — a minimally-invasive screening procedure that uses a special camera to detect cancer and precancerous polyps in the bowel. Unfortunately, many people avoid this potentially life-saving test, often due to unfounded fears of pain or embarrassment. In truth, a colonoscopy is nothing to be apprehensive about. Here’s an honest look at what you can expect during the procedure.

Get ready.

You will need to take steps to ensure that the inside of your bowel is clean so that the doctor can get a clear image. Your doctor will give you easy-to-follow instructions a day or two before your scheduled procedure. Usually, these directions entail a clear liquid diet and a regimen of laxatives. Bowel prep can be mildly unpleasant — most people consider it to be the worst part of getting a colonoscopy — but resting at home will allow you to relax and stay as comfortable as possible.

What’s next?

The examination itself doesn’t hurt at all. In fact, you won’t even be awake when it happens! You will be given a sedative to help you sleep comfortably during the procedure. Then, the doctor will insert a colonoscope, (a long, flexible tube with a very small camera and a light on the end), into the colon. As the colonoscope travels the length of the bowel and takes pictures, your doctor will examine the images on a monitor. If any polyps are found, your doctor can remove them with specially-designed tools that are threaded through the tubing of the colonoscope. The procedure generally only takes 30-60 minutes. Once the exam is complete, you’ll be monitored while the anesthesia wears off. Your results may take a few days to process, but in most cases you will receive them before you leave. It is important to note that you won’t be allowed to drive for the rest of the day, so be sure to bring a family member or a friend to drive you home. You can usually eat right away, although you may not have much of an appetite at first.

How often do I need a colonoscopy?

Colon cancer screening usually starts around age 50. If you have additional risk factors, like a family history of the disease, your doctor may want to check things out sooner. Most patients with a clear test result won’t need a follow-up colonoscopy for ten years. If your results indicate signs of a problem, you will probably need to be retested every five years.