The Truth About Getting a Colonoscopy

Ignore the Myths and You May Be Able to Prevent Colon Cancer

Senior man sitting on bed in hospital room
 David Sacks/Getty Images

For many people, the thought of undergoing a colonoscopy is one they would rather ignore. However, it is an important procedure that can detect and even prevent colon cancer. In fact, the motto of National Colon Cancer Awareness Month (which falls in March) is "Colon Cancer is Preventable, Treatable, and Beatable."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 1 in 3 Americans are up to date with their recommended colon screening. If you shudder at the idea of having a colonoscopy, we hope that dispelling some of the myths and presenting you with the facts will encourage you to schedule one.

Fact or Fiction: Having a Colonoscopy Can Prevent 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. These can be present without having any symptoms and 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. It is the only screening exam that can both screen for polyps and remove them at the same time. Better yet, removing any polyps found during the procedure is completely painless, since the colon does not have traditional nerve endings.

In short, by following the recommended screening guidelines for a colonoscopy, colon cancer can be prevented.

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 anyone with a family history, screening exams may be recommended at a younger age and should be discussed with your 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. These include a change in bowel habits such as diarrhea and/or constipation, chronic abdominal pain, or rectal bleeding.

Fact or Fiction: A Colonoscopy Is an Uncomfortable Procedure

Fiction. Most of us have heard stories or jokes suggesting that a colonoscopy is an unpleasant experience to be dreaded. It is not surprising that fear of enduring an uncomfortable procedure is the most common reason people avoid a colonoscopy.

However, the truth is that it is routine to use sedation and anesthesia. It is not the same as a general anesthetic commonly used for most surgeries. Instead, it is referred to as “twilight” or “conscious sedation” and it 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.

If the concern of being uncomfortable during the exam is holding you back, talk to your gastroenterologist and ask any questions you have. They've likely heard all of them before, so don't feel embarrassed. 

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 and cleaned out. You will be provided specific instructions to follow prior to the procedure.

In general, these instructions involve a clear liquid diet the day before your exam and a bowel prep to be performed that evening. 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 is so important to the success of the exam, it is worth the extra effort to have a plan in place to make the process go smoothly. To be best prepared, here are some survival tips:

  • Stock up on plenty of clear liquid options 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, gelatin, popsicles, clear or light colored juices without any pulp, water (including flavored water), and sports or electrolyte replacement drinks. 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 helps to avoid any unnecessary reminders of food. This includes public locations where meals are served and 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. Likewise, if you choose to surf social media, you probably won’t appreciate reading about someone's favorite recipe or dinner plans. It may even be helpful to arrange for your family to eat dinner out of the house without you.
  • Carefully review the bowel prep instructions at least two to three 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. If you have any questions or concerns about the one prescribed, call your physician’s office to discuss those in advance.
  • Be sure to buy the bowel prep and have it ready to go prior to the day of clear liquids.
  • Bowel preps come in many varieties and flavors. 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 take a 30- to 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.
  • 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.
  • After the prep is complete, taking a warm shower or bath can help you feel refreshed and relaxed so you can rest comfortably during the night.

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. If you are prepared with a plan and following all your prep instructions, you will leave your colon completely clean. This helps your gastroenterologist do his best job during the colonoscopy and will help 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 involves some time and effort, the investment is well worth the peace of mind to know you are preventing colon cancer. 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 are 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. Many people even find that the sedation leaves them feeling relaxed for several hours, which is perfect for enjoying some quiet time or indulging in an afternoon nap.

Your gastroenterologist will also update you on any findings as well as follow-up recommendations for your next screening exam.

A Word From Verywell

Even though a colonoscopy may not be at the top of your to-do list, it's a good idea to add it to your priorities. It is a simple procedure that can prevent colon cancer, and it will be worth your time and effort. If nothing else, it offers peace of mind and you can feel good about taking one more step to improving your health.

Was this page helpful?
View Article Sources
  • American College of Gastroenterology. Colonoscopy: CRC Risk Factors. 2017.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Colorectal Cancer Screening Rates Remain Low. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2013.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Colorectal Cancer Statistics. 2017.
  • Colorectal Cancer Alliance. National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. 2017.