If you’re like I was a month ago — “past a certain age” and still colonoscopy-free — you’ve probably been procrastinating more because of the idea of the bowel cleanse than out of fear of the test itself.
Screening for colorectal cancer is recommended to begin at age 50 and continue until age 75, according to the CDC.
I’m proud to say I finally bit the bullet and got my first-ever colonoscopy, and it was nowhere near as bad as I’d expected. Here’s my story.
Colonoscopy is one of those words that is wrapped in fear for many people. The idea of actually paying to let a doctor insert a camera into a most private portion of your body — your colon — to take a look around seems to defy logic.
That’s one of the excuses I gave myself for the last several years as I put off making the initial appointment to meet with a gastroenterologist to learn more about the procedure. (That’s a doctor who specializes in the digestive system, which includes the intestines.)
Lucky for me, I moved across town and changed to a new family doctor who not only recommended that I get a colonoscopy and gave me a referral, he actually had that doctor’s office call me to schedule the appointment. No more procrastination allowed!
Meeting the Doctor
The initial appointment was about what you’d expect. The doctor’s assistant asked all the typical questions about my health history and past surgeries as well as my diet and exercise habits. Nothing to brag about there — I eat what I shouldn’t and don’t get anywhere near as much exercise as I should.
Then I met the doctor and we got to the fun part — talking about the actual colonoscopy.
The fearful part of my brain was relieved to hear that I would be asleep the entire time, so I wouldn’t even know what was going on. The curious part of my brain that is fascinated by how the body functions was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to watch the camera working its way through my insides!
Preparing for “The Cleanse”
It made perfect sense that before the doctor would want to insert his camera into my bowels, he would want me to clear out what is normally in there — as my 4-year-old niece would say, poop!
Of course, I’d heard horror stories from friends who described gallons of nasty liquid that I would have to drink to “cleanse” my system. The reality was a 16-ounce glass of clear liquid that tasted like bitter grape punch.
I’d also heard from some of my more fortunate friends that they only had to swallow a bunch of pills to accomplish the same thing as the liquid. I asked the doctor about that and he told me that, in his personal experience, the pills were less effective than the liquid. So his office only prescribes the liquid.
I decided I couldn’t argue with that logic. If I’m going to go through with this, I want the doctor to get the absolute best view he can.
Countdown to C-Day
When I picked up my bowel prep from the pharmacy, I received a box containing two bottles of liquid and a 16-ounce plastic measuring cup. The instructions said to pour one bottle into the cup then add cool water to the fill line and drink it down.
The first bottle was for the night before my procedure. The second bottle was for the day of — about four hours before my test was scheduled to start.
The actual cleanse started more than 24 hours before my procedure. With my test scheduled at 10 a.m. on Thursday, I ate my “last meal” at 11:30 Tuesday night before the midnight cutoff.
The food restrictions were severe, but I figured I could survive anything for one day. I was allowed to drink clear liquids including juice with no pulp, clear broth, and coffee or tea with no cream.
I could also have soda, flavored water, Italian ice, popsicles and gelatin, as long as it was not colored red or purple. Those dye colors can cling to the inside of your intestine and look like blood during your test.
All in all, fasting for the day wasn’t bad. I was pleased to discover that my stomach gave up grumbling as long as I remembered to alternate between my diet drinks and liquids with real sugar.
An Evening with My Toilet
Both my doctor and the instructions with the bowel prep warned me to stay close to the bathroom once I started drinking the fluid. So I set up shop in the bedroom just steps away from the toilet with my TV remote, iPad and a book. I made sure I was wearing loose, pull-on shorts that were easy to get out of.
The first glass of prep tasted bad — I forgot to stir it after I added the water so I had swallows that were extra sweet and swallows that were really bitter. I made a mental note to stir before I drank the second glass in the morning.
The instructions said I had to drink two more 16-ounce glasses of water in the next hour. No problem, I thought. I took my first glass of water and headed to the bedroom to watch TV and wait for whatever would happen next.
When it hit, it turned urgent in a hurry. I jumped over a sleeping dog on the way to the toilet and just made it before the diarrhea started. I can honestly say I’ve never felt anything like it. Sorry this is graphic, but it literally felt like someone pulled a plug and let the water pour out.
I checked my watch and made a mental note. It was almost exactly 30 minutes since I drank the prep. I’d be closer to the toilet in the morning.
It took about half an hour before I dared make the run back to the kitchen to get my second glass of water to finish up that round. I stayed close to the bathroom for another hour, then… nothing.
Two hours after I drank the prep my bowels were as empty as they were going to get. I was done for the night. I set the alarm for 5:45 a.m. and went to bed.
I can’t say it was fun waking up before the sun with the prospect of another glass of bitter grape punch, but I did it. I remembered to stir before I drank, which definitely improved the taste. Twenty-five minutes after I started, I was sitting on the toilet with two big glasses of water close. I was no novice this time. I knew what to expect.
Like clockwork, the cleanse ran its course two hours after it started, and I was ready to go when my ride arrived to drive me to the surgery center.
I could have driven there, but my car would have been stranded. They are very strict with the no-driving policy. Anesthesia can slow your reflexes which means driving is hazardous for the rest of the day. So no getting behind the wheel until Friday for me!
I checked in and was given paperwork to fill out. My friend stayed with me until I was called back.
I was shown to a hospital bed in my own curtained-off cubicle in a room with about 20 similar curtained areas. This was where I would be prepped and where I would be brought after the procedure while I was waking up.
As expected, I had to strip down to nothing but the hospital gown. All my belongings went into a plastic bag that sat on a shelf under my bed until time to get dressed after the procedure.
I was happy for the warmed blanket and for the socks the doctor had advised me to wear. The room was cold and I wasn’t wearing much!
The nurses were very efficient, checking my arm band, pulse, blood pressure and oxygen levels. They also put an IV into a vein in my hand to make it easy for the doctors to give me medications during my procedure.
Next, the anesthesiologist came by to explain her job. When we got to the room, I would need to turn onto my side for the procedure. She would then inject the drugs into the IV so I would sleep.
The actual colonoscopy would take about 20 minutes and I would wake up back in the same room I started in. Once I was awake and alert, the doctor would come in and tell me what he saw in my colon. I was hoping he would have nothing interesting to report!
I opted to have my friend with me when the doctor talked to me. I liked the idea of a second set of ears to hear whatever the doctor had to say, especially if there was any kind of bad news.
Everything happened exactly as it was explained to me. I was wheeled into a room with a very large TV screen and a variety of computers and medical gear. I rolled onto my side and that’s the last thing I remember until I woke up to see my friend sitting nearby back in my curtained cubicle.
The doctor came in soon after I woke up and told me everything went fine. He found two small polyps inside my intestine that he snipped off. He assured me they looked benign, which means non-cancerous. But he sent them to the lab to be tested, just to be sure.
I should mention the one embarrassing side effect left behind after the colonoscopy. When the doctor was inserting the camera into my intestine, he filled the space with air and liquid to inflate the colon which makes it easier to see.
As he removed the camera, he suctioned most of the air and liquid out — but not all of it. So before I was allowed to leave the surgery center, the nurses had to hear me pass gas!
Aside from some remaining air that needed to pass and a slightly sore bottom from the diarrhea the night before, I went home feeling fine and proud of myself for acting my age and getting tested.
Colon Cancer Facts
Finding and removing polyps is one of the main goals of a colonoscopy. According to the American Cancer Society, polyps start as small growths or non-cancerous tumors that grow out from the lining of the intestine.
Some polyps are considered to be pre-cancerous because they are more likely to eventually turn into cancer. Other polyps are benign and are not likely to turn into cancer. The only way to be sure whether a polyp is benign or not is to remove and test it in the lab.
Colorectal cancer is the name used for cancer that starts in the colon or rectum. It is the third most common type of cancer in the United States, excluding skin cancers.
The American Cancer Society estimates that over 132,000 people will be newly diagnosed with colorectal cancer this year. Nearly 50,000 people will die from the disease.
The good news is that the death rate from this type of cancer has been dropping in both men and women for the last 20 years. Doctors believe the decrease is partly due to more people getting screened early. This allows polyps like mine to be found and removed before they turn into cancer. It also allows cancerous polyps to be found early and removed before the cancer can spread.
I am still waiting to receive the lab report on my two small polyps. No matter what the report says, I am relieved to know they have been removed. I don’t ever want to be one of those statistics.
Unlike some cancers, colorectal cancer can be found and treated early thanks to procedures like the colonoscopy. According to the CDC, everyone age 50 or older should have regular screenings.
The standard for colonoscopy is every 10 years. Because my doctor found polyps during my first colonoscopy, he wants to see me back in 5 years.
Am I willing to go through it again? Absolutely!
American Cancer Society. What is colorectal cancer? Web. June 4, 2015.
American Cancer Society. What are the key statistics about colorectal cancer? Web. June 4, 2015.
American Cancer Society. Frequently Asked Questions About Colonoscopy and Sigmoidoscopy. Web. June 4, 2015.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Colorectal Cancer Screening Guidelines. Web. June 4, 2015.
Reviewed June 5, 2015
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith