The Truth About Getting a Colonoscopy

Colonoscopy – Fact or Fiction?
Colonoscopy – Fact or Fiction?.

Each year, the month of March is dedicated to National Colon Cancer Awareness. Its mission includes spreading the word that with early detection and screening, Colon Cancer is Preventable, Treatable, and Beatable.

This may be a timely reminder for some to schedule their colonoscopy exam, and the truth is that for most people, the thought of undergoing this preventative procedure is one they would rather ignore.

In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 1 in 3 Americans are up to date with their recommended screening. If you shudder at the idea of having a colonoscopy, this article comparing fact from fiction is for you.

Fact or Fiction: Having a Colonoscopy is Actually the Cure to Preventing Colon Cancer

Fact. Colon cancer refers to cancer of either the colon or the rectum and is the second leading cause of cancer deaths for both men and women. However, colon cancer begins from colon polyps, which can be present without having any symptoms but can be easily discovered and removed during a colonoscopy.

Although there are other tests that may be able to detect colon cancer, a colonoscopy is considered the gold standard, since it is the only screening exam that can both screen for polyps and remove them at the same time. Better yet, removing the polyps found during the procedure is completely painless, since the colon does not have traditional nerve endings.

So, by following the recommended screening guidelines for a colonoscopy, colon cancer can be prevented from occurring.

Fact or Fiction: Colonoscopies Are Only Needed After the Age of 50

Fiction. The American College of Gastroenterology recommends a screening colonoscopy beginning at age 50 for those who have no other risk factors or family history of pre-cancerous polyps or colon cancer.

However, for individuals with a family history, screening exams may be recommended at a younger age and should be discussed with a physician. In addition, African-Americans are advised to begin screening exams at age 45.

Along with the recommended screening exams, colonoscopies may also be performed to evaluate anyone who is experiencing unexplained digestive symptoms, including a change in bowel habits such as diarrhea and/or constipation, chronic abdominal pain, or rectal bleeding.

Fact or Fiction: Having a Colonoscopy Is an Uncomfortable Procedure

Fiction. Let’s admit it. Most of us have heard stories or jokes suggesting that a colonoscopy is an unpleasant experience to be dreaded. So, it is not surprising that fear of enduring an uncomfortable procedure is the most common reason people avoid having a colonoscopy.

However, the truth is that it has become routine for sedation and anesthesia to be used. While the sedation used is not the same as a general anesthetic common for most surgeries, it is referred to as “twilight” or “conscious sedation” and works very well to keep the patient resting and comfortable during the exam. In fact, most patients are completely asleep during the procedure and wake up wondering if anything even happened.

So if the concern of being uncomfortable during the exam is holding you back, talk to your gastroenterologist to, ask questions and learn more. 

Fact or Fiction: Having a Colonoscopy Includes a Bowel Prep

Fact. During a colonoscopy, a thin, lighted tube is inserted all the way into the colon to look for polyps or other abnormal growths—but remember, this all happens while you are sedated and asleep.

However, in order for your gastroenterologist to find any polyps or abnormalities, the colon must be completely visible. To get cleaned out, your gastroenterologist will provide specific instructions, but in general, these will involve a clear liquid diet the day before your exam and a bowel prep to be performed the evening prior.

Although this may not sound like fun and has even been called the worst part of the whole process, it really isn’t as bad as most people fear.

Since the bowel prep or colon cleansing part of the colonoscopy experience is so important to the success of the exam, it is worth the extra effort to have a plan to help the process go smoothly. To be best prepared, here are some survival tips:

  • Stock up on plenty of clear liquid options, which are any liquids you can see through, to stay well-hydrated the day before your exam. Some great options include chicken or beef broth, plain tea or coffee without any milk or cream, jello, popsicles, clear or light colored juices without any pulp, water including flavored water, and sports or electrolyte replacement drinks. However, keep in mind that anything with red or purple dye is off limits, as are foods such as yogurt, applesauce, or milk and dairy products.  
  • It may help to be mindful of avoiding any unnecessary reminders of food such as being present in public locations where meals are served or through inadvertent media exposure. In other words, this is not the day to watch the Food Network or be bombarded with commercials promoting restaurants or snack foods, and likewise, if you choose to surf social media, you probably won’t appreciate reading about your online friends sharing their favorite recipes or lunch and dinner plans. If applicable, arranging for your family to eat dinner out of the house – without you – is also a great idea.
  • Carefully review the bowel prep instructions at least 2-3 days beforehand to plan your day’s schedule. Your gastroenterologist will have provided a recommended bowel prep for you, but there are multiple preps available and if you have any questions or concerns about the one prescribed, call the physician’s office to discuss.
  • Be sure to have the bowel prep purchased and ready to go prior to the day of clear liquids.
  • Bowel preps come in many varieties and flavors, but in general, any prep will go down easier if it has been chilled in the refrigerator for a few hours prior to drinking.
  • To help minimize any after-taste, use a straw to drink the prep. Many people also find it helpful to take a sip of another clear liquid, such as juice or broth, after drinking the prep to chase down the after-taste.
  • If you experience nausea or an upset stomach during the prep, it can be helpful to stop for a 30-40 minute break and then resume drinking. Peppermint is also recognized as an anti-nausea remedy, so having some hard candies on hand may help ease any nausea or queasiness.   
  • Be ready to spend some time nesting in the bathroom with your favorite book, magazines, iPad, smartphone, or whatever else may keep you entertained.
  • Also be sure to stock up on plenty of extra-soft toilet paper and flushable hypoallergenic wipes. Having some Vaseline or diaper rash ointment is also a good idea and can be applied early during the prep as a barrier to help avoid irritation from occurring.
  • After the prep is complete, taking a warm shower or bath can help you feel refreshed and relaxed so you can rest comfortably the remainder of the night.

So while it may not be your idea of an exciting or fun-filled evening, the bowel prep is actually not as bad as it may seem. Better yet, being prepared with a plan and following all your prep instructions will leave your colon completely clean to help your gastroenterologist do his or her best job during the colonoscopy to keep you as healthy as possible.  

Fact or Fiction: Taking the Time to Have a Colonoscopy Is too Inconvenient

Fiction. While it is true that completing a colonoscopy does involve some time and effort, the investment is well worth the peace of mind to know you are preventing colon cancer from occurring. After your colonoscopy is completed, you will wake up from the sedation quickly and be ready to go home after a short recovery time.

Since medications were used to help you sleep through the exam, arrangements will need to be made for a designated driver. Once you leave the facility, you will be allowed to eat and drink normally again as soon as you feel ready. Better yet, the sedation will leave you feeling relaxed for several hours, which is perfect for enjoying some quiet time or indulging in an afternoon nap. In addition, your gastroenterologist will also update you on any findings as well as follow-up recommendations for your next screening exam.

So remember, by completing your colonoscopy screening on time, you are doing your part to support the mission of making Colon Cancer Preventable, Treatable, and Beatable. 


Colon Cancer Alliance

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