Dispelling the Myths of the Colonoscopy

Tuesday, November 24, 2015 8:47 AM

Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States, claiming nearly 29,000 men and women each year. It is surpassed only by lung cancer. Colon cancer also happens to be one of the most preventable cancers. Studies have shown that a colonoscopy can reduce the risk of developing and dying from colorectal cancer by 90%. A colonscopy can enable a physician to identify and remove polyps before they even become malignant. 

David Labowitz, DO, MPH, Gastroenterology at NorthShore, addresses some of the damaging myths about colonoscopy that discourage many from getting this lifesaving procedure when they should:

Myth #1: The “prep work” is terrible.
You do have to empty your colon before a colonoscopy. This is the hardest part of the exam, but the most important.  I always tell patients that without a good prep, it’s like driving through fog—you cannot see where you are going.  However, the prep does not have to be a terrible experience. The day before the procedure, you should stop eating solid food and consume only clear liquids; however, you can have more than just water. Incorporating variety—tea, Jell-O, sports drinks and broth—into your 24-hour clear liquid diet will help make it more bearable.

The most common complaint is the volume of colonoscopy prep electrolyte solution that must be consumed to clear the bowels. To make this easier, we actually split the drinking of the prep into two different time periods (the evening before and a couple of hours before the procedure).  This not only is an easier way for patients to accomplish the prep, but has been shown in national studies to be a better way to prep for the procedure.  Think about the prep this way: the cleaner your colon, the faster and easier the procedure the next day. Unfortunately, if your colon isn’t clear because you have failed to drink the solution, polyps and lesions could go undetected or the results could be inconclusive. Further, the procedure may need to be repeated. It’s all about doing it right the first time.

Myth #2: The procedure is painful.
A colonoscopy is a very tolerable procedure. Further, it does not take very long and most of the time is completed within 20-30 minutes. Before the procedure begins, you will be given a sedative to help you relax. In fact, most patients will sleep through the entire procedure and wake up not remembering any of it. Those who remain awake during the procedure report nothing more than slight cramping or pressure in the abdomen, similar to the feeling of having a bowel movement. 

Myth #3: It’s embarrassing.
Our NorthShore gastroenterologists perform over 35,000 GI procedures each year—the majority being colonoscopies—so they have a lot of experience making sure patients are as comfortable with the process as possible. Patients can also make an appointment with their gastroenterologist before the procedure to meet face to face and ask any questions that will help them feel more comfortable. 

Myth #4: There is a high risk of complications.
Complications during or after a colonoscopy are very rare. The bottom line is your risk of developing colon cancer is far higher than your risk of suffering a complication due to a colonoscopy. It is, however, important to schedule your colonoscopy with a physician who is certified to perform this procedure. 

Myth #5: Colonoscopies aren’t necessary for women.
Colorectal cancer affects men and women in nearly equal numbers. It’s not a man’s disease; therefore, screening colonoscopies are for everyone. Women need to schedule their first screening colonoscopy starting at age 50, just like men. More than 90% of colorectal cancer is diagnosed in people who are 50 or older. Those with a family history of the disease and other risk factors—a history of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), history of polyps, type 2 diabetes, obesity and smoking—might need to start screening early and undergo screening more often. Ask your doctor when you should begin screening.

For more information on colonoscopies and to make an appointment, click here

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