On Your Health

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A First-Person Account of a Colonoscopy

Today we have a special guest post from Kellye Elliott, a business development manager at the INTEGRIS Health Cancer Institute.

This was the year I turned the big 5-0, which could only mean one thing: time to get my colonoscopy, hooray! (Just kidding). While I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the procedure, I knew it was a “must do.” Of all cancers affecting both men and women, colorectal cancer — cancer of the colon or rectum — is the second-leading killer in the U.S., according to the CDC. The American Cancer Society says your lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is 1 in 20, with 150,000 new cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year.

A colonoscopy screening, though often dreaded, is key to reducing the incidence of colon cancer. Colon cancer is one of the few cancers that can actually be prevented, mainly because it often goes through a “polyp” stage before it turns into colon cancer. A polyp is an abnormal tissue growth.

A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that removing precancerous growths found during a colonoscopy can cut the risk of dying from colon cancer in half. More than 95 percent of tumors are detected during a colonoscopy.

Even with our family doctor urging me to get my colonoscopy after I hit the milestone birthday, I still dragged my feet because the idea of a colonoscopy seemed uncomfortable and a little embarrassing. Then a good family friend named Wade Cole learned he had colon cancer, even though he had shown no symptoms. The cancer was discovered during his routine colonoscopy when he turned 50. Now, more than a year later, he is doing just fine after surgery and chemotherapy, but if he hadn’t had his routine colonoscopy, the cancer could have dangerously advanced even before symptoms occurred. Check out this video to learn more about Wade's journey.

There is some good news — the word is getting out and more people are getting screened at age 50. But that is not good enough, because people are still dying from colon cancer. Many of the deaths occur in patients who were not screened, according to the American Cancer Society, which estimates about 23 million people aged 50 to 75 are not up to date on screening. 

As for me, this wasn’t my first colonoscopy; unfortunately, I thought I knew what to expect. My first was many years ago when I was in college due to “nervous tummy” issues.

Perhaps the thing I dreaded most was the prep required the day before the procedure. I have vivid memories of feeling ravenously hungry since no food was allowed the entire day before the screening, and having an unquenchable thirst since no water was allowed 12 hours before the procedure, too. Mostly I remember feeling extremely cranky and deprived for a full 24 hours.

Even worse was the night before the screening, when I chugged copious amounts of bowel prep (I call it “the yucky stuff”) on a schedule and then spent the rest of the night in the bathroom (ahem), cleaning out my colon until it was completely emptied. No fun!

One of the local gastroenterologists at the practice I visited, created a new protocol he called “Happy Colon Foods Colonoscopy Meal Prep.” The only downside? This special prep cost $40 and wasn't covered by insurance (but if you have a flexible spending account, you can use it to cover the cost). One of the nurses told me the doctor hoped to patent this prep protocol one day. I sure hope he does, because this prep seemed easier than the one I not-so-fondly recalled from my youth!

Two days before the procedure I started eating a very low fiber diet. Then, the day before the procedure, food was provided to me. It consisted of oatmeal for breakfast, a mid-morning cracker snack, a prepackaged microwaved pasta meal for lunch, a mid-afternoon cookie snack, vegetable broth for dinner, and a cookie snack in the evening. The nurse told me these foods are specifically chosen so that very little residual waste will be in the colon during the procedure. 

Each time I ate something I also took a capful of polyethylene glycol (laxative powder) with 20 ounces of water and a Senna tablet (laxative pill). The laxative powder was tasteless and the protocol allowed me to mix in a little Crystal Light flavoring.

Originally I planned on working the full day before the colonoscopy, but by late afternoon the laxatives kicked in. I stayed in my house and suffered through the colon cleansing the rest of the evening and into the morning of the screening.

I had my last dose of laxative powder, mixed in with the flavored water and the last laxative pill, at 8 a.m. My appointment was at 2 p.m. As part of the protocol I couldn’t have any food or water for six hours after the last laxative, so I was pretty thirsty by then, but overall I still felt pretty good.

I arrived at the clinic, was taken back to the procedure room, and given an IV. The nurse anesthetist placed an oxygen cannula on my nose and told me to breathe in deeply as she administered the “sleepy” medicine. For a brief moment I felt a few tingles on my face and then I was out! I don’t remember anything past that point, including the actual colonoscopy.

Although I wasn’t awake for it, the colonoscopy itself only took about 30 minutes. During the procedure, the gastroenterologist examined my colon by inserting a long, flexible tube called a colonoscope into the rectum. A tiny video camera at the tip of the tube sent images to a screen which allowed the doctor to view the inside of the entire colon.

The next thing I knew, I woke up in a very relaxed mood in the recovery room. As I finished getting dressed, my doctor told me the preliminary results. It turned out I did have a small polyp, which he removed and sent to the lab. Here is an actual picture of it!


A polyp can progress into cancer. In fact, scientists have established that most colon and rectal cancers develop from polyps. But by identifying and removing polyps during a colonoscopy, doctors can prevent their progression to cancer and ultimately save lives.  

The vast majority of polyps are NOT cancerous or even pre-cancerous, which thankfully was true in my case. Since a polyp was found though, it does mean I will need a follow-up colonoscopy in five years instead of the 10-year mark, which is the recommended time between colonoscopies if nothing unusual is discovered.

To sum it up, I have to say the whole experience wasn’t too bad! And truthfully, the other prep for the procedure I had in college probably wasn't that terrible, either. More importantly, the minor discomfort was worth it. I am so happy I did the screening and grateful the polyp was discovered and removed in a timely manner.

Think of it this way: If you do have colon cancer, this procedure will enable doctors to find it and do something about it. And if you don’t, that's great news to know! Having peace-of-mind that you are cancer free is a wonderful thing. As for me, it means I will continue standing on my soapbox and encouraging all 50-year-old folks to get a colonoscopy. Quite simply, it could save your life.