I am over 50 years old and had been putting off my colonoscopy because of fear of the prep and the procedure. I know, I know—I’m an oncology nurse and most of my patients have been through the procedure. I was having a difficult time coming up with plausible excuses. I realized I needed to put on my big girl panties (then take them off) and be an example to others. March was Colon Cancer Awareness month and a reminder to schedule my screening. This is not a pleasant subject for dinner conversation. A lot of people have the same reservations I did. Since colon cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in the United States, I hope talking about my personal experience can help dispel fear and move you (no pun intended) to get screened.
On the morning before my colonoscopy, I put together what would be my breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the next 24 hours. Of course I started the day hungry and my tummy was growling, but by afternoon, I had forgotten about food. I started the prep at 4:00 p.m. and by 7:00 p.m. I was done. I stationed myself by the bathroom for those three hours because the prep works pretty fast. There was no cramping and no discomfort but I did lose about five pounds in those three hours and my bottom was a bit sore.
I woke early the next morning because I had to be at the endoscopy center at 6:30 a.m. Other than being tired, I felt pretty good. I was led to a room and handed a gown. It was time to take the big girl panties off and prepare for the procedure. A nurse brought me warmed blankets and made sure I was comfortable. The anesthesiologist placed a tube to deliver oxygen under my nose and an IV was inserted. Once she started to instill the anesthesia, I was asleep.
I slept through the entire procedure. There was no discomfort and no memory of the colonoscopy itself. Once I passed gas, I was allowed to get dressed. That part was kind of embarrassing, but if that was my ticket to go home, I was getting on board that train. My husband was brought into the room and we met with the gastroenterologist who did the procedure. Everything was clear. I had his blessings to go home and come back in 10 years.
I did it! Was it as bad as I envisioned? Not at all. Even so, I am thrilled I only need to do this every 10 years. I was pretty wiped out the rest of the day.
According to the American Cancer Society, 1 in 22 men and 1 in 24 women will be diagnosed with colon cancer in their lifetime. It is the third leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Screening helps detect pre-cancerous growths, called polyps. By removing these polyps, the risk of colon cancer is reduced. And if colon cancer is found early during a colonoscopy, it is treatable and curable.
Colon cancer screening should begin at age 50 for most individuals. If you have any of the following risk factors for colon cancer, you should start your screenings earlier:
- A personal history of colon cancer
- A parent, sibling, or child with a history of colon cancer
- A history of inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s or colitis)
- A genetic condition such as familial adenomatosis polyposis (FAP) or Lynch syndrome
If the thought of a colonoscopy still makes you squeamish, there are options.
- A flexible sigmoidoscopy can detect polyps and cancer but does not go as far as the colonoscopy. There is a prep involved, but not as extensive as that for the colonoscopy, and there may be no sedation involved. It must be repeated every 5 years.
- A barium enema involves insertion of barium dye into the rectum. Air is then pumped in so the bowel can be visualized on x-ray. There is a bowel prep, but no sedation. If any suspicious areas are seen, a colonoscopy is required. The test must be repeated every 5 years.
- A virtual colonoscopy, or CT colonography,requires bowel prep but no sedation. Air is pumped into the bowel and a CT scan takes pictures. If a suspicious area is seen, a colonoscopy is ordered. The test must be repeated every 5 years.
- A fecal occult blood test or fecal immunohistochemistry test (FIT) tests the stool for blood. The patient is given a kit to take home. If blood is detected in the stool, it may indicate something as benign as hemorrhoids or it may indicate the need for a colonoscopy. It must be repeated yearly.
So that’s the bottom line on colonoscopies. I am glad I finally scheduled my exam and relieved the results were negative.
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