Myth-busting colonoscopy: Five reasons it’s not so bad

We hear “colonoscopy” and our bodies clench. The anticipation of the bowel-emptying prep and a scope snaking through our colon evokes strong feelings among even the hardiest of us.

For Jonathan Vinson, M.D., a family physician with Providence Medical Group-The Plaza, getting screened for colorectal cancer is a “no-brainer.”

“The benefits dramatically outweigh the risks,” says Dr. Vinson, who regularly performs another type of screening test, the flexible sigmoidoscopy. “If we find colon cancer early, we cure it.

“Symptoms don’t show up until relatively late in the disease – at that point, we’ll probably be talking about palliative care.”

Getting over your fears gets you more than halfway to your colonoscopy appointment. Here are some common myths – and the truth, which may surprise you:

I can’t handle the prep. Have you ever lived through a stomach bug or food poisoning? Then, yes you can handle drinking a solution that will facilitate the emptying of your bowels. The good news? This is the worst part. A thorough cleansing allows your doctor to detect even the smallest polyps on your colon wall, growths that can turn into cancer. If you don’t like the taste of the prep solution, try adding Gatorade or lemon-lime soda to make it more palatable. (Always check first with your doctor.) One more thing: Don’t drink anything red or pink; the color may appear as blood in your colon and confuse the test results.

If you opt for a less invasive test — such as a virtual colonoscopy, capsule endoscopy, flexible sigmoidoscopy, air contrast barium enema or fecal occult blood test — and your provider finds something curious, guess what?

You'll need a colonoscopy.

And that means more prep. Those less invasive tests we just mentioned? All but one (fecal test) requires the same prep as a colonoscopy.

The procedure is uncomfortable. Your doctor will administer anesthesia (not general) before the start of the procedure, along with a pain medicine. Some patients may have vague or spotty recollections of the procedure – which can last anywhere from 10 to 40 minutes – but most won’t remember anything. “A lot of people wake up and ask, ‘Have you started yet?’” Dr. Vinson says.

I’ll have to stay in the hospital. Getting a colonoscopy is an outpatient procedure, which means you’ll go home the same day. Colonoscopies are routinely performed in hospitals as well as in day surgery centers or in specialists’ offices.

I’ll have to take a week off work. At most, you’ll need to take off the day you’re drinking your prep – since you’ll be spending a good part of the day in the bathroom – and the day of the procedure. You’ll be foggy from the anesthesia and probably drained from a day of cleansing.

I can’t afford the procedure. A colonoscopy to screen for colorectal cancer in people 50 and older is considered a preventive screening and usually is covered in full. However, there are exceptions, and some plans may require a copayment or coinsurance. Check with your health plan to determine your specific benefit.

Colorectal cancer, Dr. Vinson reminds us, is “eminently diagnosable, treatable and curable – but only if we find it early.” And you can only find it early if you get screened. Once you’ve had a colonoscopy, depending on the results, you won’t need another one for five to 10 years.

You know what we’re going to say now, right? Get over it, please – and get screened. Talk with your primary care provider today about the screening option that’s right for you. Check out our helpful decision-making tool to learn more about colorectal cancer screenings.