Myth-busting colonoscopy: Five reasons it’s not so bad

We hear “colonoscopy” and our bodies clench. The anticipation of the bowel-emptying prep and a scope snaking through our colon evokes strong feelings among even the hardiest of us.

For Jonathan Vinson, M.D., a family physician with Providence Medical Group, getting screened for colorectal cancer is a “no-brainer.”

“The benefits dramatically outweigh the risks,” says Dr. Vinson, who regularly performs another type of screening test, the flexible sigmoidoscopy. “If we find colon cancer early, we cure it.

“Symptoms don’t show up until relatively late in the disease – at that point, we’ll probably be talking about palliative care.”

Getting over your fears gets you more than halfway to your colonoscopy appointment. Here are some common myths – and the truth, which may surprise you:

Myth: I can’t handle the prep.

Have you ever lived through a stomach bug or food poisoning? Then, yes you can handle drinking a solution that will facilitate the emptying of your bowels. The good news? This is the worst part. A thorough cleansing allows your doctor to detect even the smallest polyps on your colon wall, growths that can turn into cancer. If you don’t like the taste of the prep solution, try adding Gatorade or lemon-lime soda to make it more palatable. (Always check first with your doctor.) One more thing: Don’t drink anything red or pink; the color may appear as blood in your colon and confuse the test results.

Myth: The procedure is uncomfortable. 

Your doctor will administer anesthesia (not general) before the start of the procedure, along with a pain medicine. Some patients may have vague or spotty recollections of the procedure – which can last anywhere from 10 to 40 minutes – but most won’t remember anything. “A lot of people wake up and ask, ‘Have you started yet?’” Dr. Vinson says.

If you opt for a less invasive test — such as a virtual colonoscopy, capsule endoscopy, flexible sigmoidoscopy, air contrast barium enema or fecal occult blood test — and your provider finds something curious, guess what?

You'll need a colonoscopy.

And that means more prep. Those less invasive tests we just mentioned? All but one (fecal test) requires the same prep as a colonoscopy.

Myth: I’ll have to stay in the hospital.

Getting a colonoscopy is an outpatient procedure, which means you’ll go home the same day. Colonoscopies are routinely performed in hospitals as well as in day surgery centers or in specialists’ offices.

Myth: I’ll have to take a week off work. 

At most, you’ll need to take off the day you’re drinking your prep – since you’ll be spending a good part of the day in the bathroom – and the day of the procedure. You’ll be foggy from the anesthesia and probably drained from a day of cleansing.

Myth: I can’t afford the procedure. 

A colonoscopy to screen for colorectal cancer in people 50 and older is considered a preventive screening and usually is covered in full. However, there are exceptions, and some plans may require a copayment or coinsurance. Check with your health plan to determine your specific benefit.

Colorectal cancer, Dr. Vinson reminds us, is “eminently diagnosable, treatable and curable – but only if we find it early.” And you can only find it early if you get screened. Once you’ve had a colonoscopy, depending on the results, you won’t need another one for five to 10 years.

You know what we’re going to say now, right? Get over it, please – and get screened. Talk with your primary care provider today about the screening option that’s right for you.

Colonoscopy: What to know before you go

We know a colonoscopy isn’t something you look forward to, but neither is colon cancer. Getting screened is a small price to pay for peace of mind. If you’re 50 or older, or you have a family history of colorectal cancer, we recommend that you ask your doctor about a colonoscopy. If you’re already scheduled, here are some tips to help you prepare:

Take along a friend or family member.

You’ll need someone to drive you to and from your appointment. Not only is it required, but you’ll be woozy afterward and someone should be present for the doctor’s debrief. Most people feel fine following the procedure, but later on realize how little they actually remember.

Follow up with the specialist.

Don’t just assume everything is all right if you haven’t heard from the doctor who performed your colonoscopy. Close the loop by making sure you get a call back or a letter in the mail that details what, if anything, was found, and what your next steps should be.

Expect to be gassy.

Even though the doctor will try to remove as much air from your colon as possible, you’ll likely be flatulent for the remainder of the day. This is your free pass to let it all out.

Expect to feel drained.

You spent the day before your colonoscopy cleaning out your system, and maybe the day before that on a liquids-only diet – both of which may make you a bit dehydrated. You’ll also be feeling the aftereffects of anesthesia. When you get home, take it easy, rest, drink plenty of water and eat when you feel like it.

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