What Is a Colonoscopy, and How Do I Prep for It?
"You Want Me to Have a What?!"
. . . "and you're going to put that where?!"
Does the thought of having a colonoscopy scare the living crap out of you? Many of my friends would rather have their teeth pulled without Novocaine than have a colonoscopy, but that may be a bit dramatic, considering the simplicity of the procedure.
Even so, you have probably heard a phrase along the lines of, "I'd rather die from cancer than have a colonoscopy." But let's face it, colon cancer is a lot more painful and embarrassing than spending 30 minutes knocked out with a camera up your butt!
Prevention Is the Best Medicine
Pound this into your head: Colon cancer is one of the few cancers that is easily detectable, and if caught early, easily treatable. You can be proactive by setting up an appointment and incorporating regular colonoscopies into your healthcare routine, usually starting at the age of 50.
Note: Some doctors recommend having your first one at 40, and then a second at 50. Have a conversation with your doctor to decide what the best approach is.
Let's Get Scoped
In this article, I will share with you my recent colonoscopy experience and list resources so that you can be well prepared for your procedure. Hopefully, after learning about the "ins" of your "out," you will be able to rest easy when it's time to scope things out.
I'm going to be very open and frank. If you think that may offend you, I suggest that you get the necessary information from your doctor.
Colonoscopy Prep: Night of the Living Dead
You are supposed to empty out your colon the day or night before the procedure. There are several different ways to prep—each hospital, medical center, or outpatient clinic has their own specific instructions, so be sure to follow them to a T. I can't stress this enough!
How to Prep for a Colonoscopy
In this section, I'll explain how my night of hell differs from most. But before I freak you out, I'll be very honest—most people have no problems with prep day.
Here are the prep instructions that I received:
- One week before the colonoscopy, no blood thinners, aspirin, ibuprofen, or NSAIDs are allowed.
- Two days before, you have to take Milk of Magnesia at 8 p.m. (but only if you get constipated easily).
- On the day before the colonoscopy, no solid food (including dairy) is allowed. You can only have clear liquids such as:
- Sports drinks
- Powdered drinks (Kool-Aid, Crystal Lite)
- Apple juice
- White grape juice
- Ice pops (no sherbet or fruit pulp)
- Coffee or tea (without milk or creamer)
- Hard candies
Note: It is very important that none of these clear liquids include red or purple dye. Otherwise, the imaging of your colon can reveal false internal bleeding.
My Experience Taking Laxatives
In the morning on the day before my procedure, I bought a large package of toilet paper and baby wipes to reduce irritation. At 3 p.m., I was feeling great—sucking on ice pops and nibbling on JELL-O. At 4 p.m., it was time to mix the prep. Before I did, I had to take four Dulcolax tablets.
Then I was instructed to mix one large bottle of Miralax (238 grams) with 64 ounces of a sports drink, water, or Crystal Light. Since the store didn't have the large bottle of Miralax, I picked up two smaller ones and mixed them with two 32-ounce bottles of Gatorade. I don't usually drink Gatorade or sports drinks, so I chose two different kinds to sample. (Next time—and yes, there will be a next time—I'm using Crystal Light, as I prefer the flavor.)
The Miralax dissolved instantly, but I was told to put it in the fridge for two hours first. At 6 p.m., I had to start drinking the prep; one cup every 10–15 minutes until it was gone. You must finish it in two to three hours. The hospital staff suggested that I drink the liquid cold and through a straw, so I did.
My Doctor's Advice:
"Stick close to the toilet."
Off to a Good Start
I finished the first bottle of prep with no problems. The Miralax has no taste and absolutely no grit. Had I not mixed it myself, I would not have known it wasn't a plain sports drink.
As I started drinking the second bottle, I started feeling full. I felt fuller and fuller until I didn't think I could drink any more . . . but I had to. The last few ounces had to be forced. (Next time, I'll drink less during the day so my stomach isn't filled with liquid before the prep.)
Then, It Hit Me . . .
Then the urgency hit—this is what I had feared. All of those colon cleansing photos came to mind, and I dreaded going to the bathroom, but I had to.
The first one looked like my regular morning BM. I was cruising. I thought that I was going to get through this easy. The next thing I knew, I was running to the bathroom again. "Whew, just made it." The weird thing is that it looked like plain blue water (I drank a blue sports drink). I made several return trips. I took only one normal BM, and the rest came out like water. There was no diarrhea or loose stools in sight. I don't know if this is average or not, but it totally surprised me.
What may have helped (but I can't be sure 100%) is that a few days before I happened to see a Crystal Light product that had added fiber in it. Since I love Crystal Light, I picked it up. Maybe having the extra fiber a few days before helped me prepare, even before the official prep.
So after one regular BM and five blue watery ones, I figured it was time for bed. The instructions said that if by chance the bowel movements weren't clear or yellow, you have to drink a bottle of Magnesium Citrate. Thank goodness mine were clear (tinted with blue dye), because I couldn't drink anything else if my life depended on it.
A Poop Panic Attack
So I started watching TV to unwind, and a wave of nausea hit me. I had to jump up and run to the bathroom because I felt gurgling . . .
I didn't quite make it and the pretty blue liquid got on the bathroom floor. I slipped, fell on the floor, banged my hip, and hit my head. I felt so sick to my stomach that I just laid there for about 30 minutes before calling my husband for help. By then, I was incredibly sick, and for some unknown reason, it spurred a panic attack.
I don't know if you have ever had a panic attack, but they are not fun at all. I experienced the sweats, a rapid heartbeat, and, oh, nausea. Just what I needed, more nausea. By the way, they tell you that if you "toss your cookies" during the prep that you'll have to reschedule your colonoscopy—so I tried my darnedest to keep it down—but boy was it hard.
I was afraid that I would be too sick to go to the hospital the next day.
A Rare Reaction
My reaction to the prep was quite rare, so please do not worry. My mother-in-law had her first colonoscopy at 95 years old. She sailed through the prep and procedure with no problems. If a 95-year-old can do it, so can you!
Finally, It Was Over
So after lying on the floor for a while, my husband helped me up and cleaned the bathroom floor while I hit the shower. Gosh, that felt good. I was finally able to fall asleep right before the alarm rang. I was still feeling pretty out of it, but after about 45 minutes, I began to feel like my old self again. I took another shower (don't you just love showers?), left, and breezed through the colonoscopy.
Proceeding With the Procedure
They often schedule colonoscopies early in the morning so you don't starve to death or give your colon a chance to fill up again. I was scheduled for 5:30 a.m., so I had to be there at 5 a.m.
After a quick rundown of my health history (they already had info from my doctor's office), they just had to double-check a few facts and make sure that I hadn't had any food or water after midnight.
After the rundown, I put on a gown. I was surprised to find that I could leave my shirt and socks on. Once I was "dressed," they stuck an IV in my arm where the "magic potion" would soon flow.
If you had anything to eat or drink after midnight, you might have to have your procedure rescheduled. You can regurgitate if you have anything in your stomach while under anesthesia, and this can put you at risk of aspiration. The only exception is if you must take medication with water, in which case they may allow it, but no later than two hours before your scheduled time.
You should also be aware that you can't have gum or breath mints, either. Be sure to brush your teeth well so you don't knock out the hospital staff when you talk.
The last thing that I remember was being wheeled into a tiny little room where the doctor, anesthesiologist, and equipment was.
The doctor asked me to confirm that I was indeed there to have a colonoscopy. (This is the standard hospital policy to verify that they have the right patient for the right procedure.) Once I told him that I was there to have pictures taken of my ass, he laughed, and they injected the magic potion into my IV.
It's Time to Go to La-La-Land
The anesthesia makes it very hard to remember anything you said right before or after the procedure. So if you tried to pick up the nurse or make a play for the doctor, they'll remember, but you won't. Whew. Now, don't you feel a bit better?
You won't experience any of the side effects that you would have when undergoing a longer surgery. This drug helps you sleep, but you won't wake up groggy or "hungover."
A Happy (Rear) Ending
The next thing I knew, I was waking up from a very restful sleep in the recovery room. The entire procedure lasted only 30 minutes. This section is very short, isn't it? That's because I don't remember any of it. I think that I might have dreamed of being on Kauai.
I wish that I could say that about the night before!
Be Honest . . .
How freaked out are you about getting a colonoscopy?
- 42% I'm totally freakin out! I don't want a camera up my butt.
- 11% Have you seen how wide that hose is? And it blows air? Of course I'm scared!
- 30% I'm a bit nervous, but I'll be fine.
- 4% I made it through the prep, so I am pretty confident moving forward.
- 5% Nervous? What, are you kidding? I'm looking forward to the anesthesia.
- 7% Nope, this ain't my first rodeo.
I know that this is kind of like our first date and we don't know each other that well, but heck, I'm a Woodstocker, so let me flash you my colon.
I won't tell if you don't.
If the pictures below don't make sense to you, don't worry, they didn't make any sense to me either. Luckily, the doctor explained what I was looking at. They are hard to see, but the lighter colored areas (that look like pimple eruptions) are polyps. They found, removed, and biopsied three polyps. I've had malignant melanoma in the past, so luckily these polyps were caught in time. Had I put this off another few years . . . well, I hate to think about it.
I also found out that I have diverticulosis (a dent in the wall of the colon). But that's not a big deal. In the second-to-last photo on the bottom row, the black spot is the diverticulosis. Diverticulosis can turn into diverticulitis (where the dents are larger and foods such as nuts can get lodged), but most likely, it won't.
Diverticulosis Is a Fairly Common Find
After the Procedure
After the procedure, I woke up, got dressed, and went home. The whole process took less than 15 minutes. I felt pretty good. Since the medication was so light, I didn't feel any aftereffects. For a while afterward, I noticed a few things about my body that had changed:
- My cravings for carbs and sugars went away.
- I slept better.
- I was generally more relaxed.
It was actually worth going through that hellish night just to feel that good. The cleanse was just what my body needed. It was a total colon reboot.
Are you feeling more relaxed yet?
- 30% Yep. This doesn't seem so bad.
- 70% Nope. I'm still on edge.
Katie Couric's Colonoscopy
Katie Couric is a well-known television host. Her colonoscopy was filmed in 2000 to stress the importance of having routine colonoscopies as an adult. It was revolutionary at the time to televise such a procedure. Katie's husband had died two years prior to filming from colon cancer, so she made it her mission to help others avoid such a fate:
“It felt like this disease cheated Jay out of so many things, taking him when he was just 42, and our girls were 2 and 6 years old . . . . I was compelled to try to have something good come from his senseless death—to help other families avoid the type of terrible loss mine had endured.”
– Katie Couric
Since Katie was to be filmed while her procedure was being performed, she was given fairly light sedation. Her segment has helped normalize colonoscopies and emphasize their necessity.
I was 100% not interested in having my scope filmed for the public eye, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels this way. But I still admire Katie for her bravery.
Tips and Tricks for Your Colonoscopy
- Very rarely does anyone get sick from prep, but drinking it too quickly can upset your stomach. If you do start feeling nauseous, take a break for a few minutes. Just be sure you still get it all down in the allotted time. Also, chilling the beverage can help prevent nausea. (Personally, I was not a fan of the cold liquid, but everyone's experience is different.)
- If you have a history of cancer, you should get a colonoscopy every two years, rather than the recommended ten.
- Try not to fill up on liquids during the day so you can drink all that liquid more easily.
- You may want to pick up a pack of Depends so you don't need to worry about accidents or having to run too quickly. You may not need them, but for peace of mind, it's worth it.
- Sometimes when you have polyps removed there may be a little bit of blood afterward. Don't be concerned—this is normal, though uncommon. I didn't experience any bleeding.
- The only real side effect you will probably experience is some gassiness—since they pump your colon full of air for the scope to see everything properly. Otherwise, you should feel completely fine!
- It may take several days before you have your first normal BM. It took me four or five days. Waiting is normal, as it takes a while for your colon to get up and running again.
Don't Be Embarrased
Having a colonoscopy can save your life! Is your life really worth risking to avoid some minor embarrassment?
Take Care of Yourself and Your Colon!
Maybe you've already had a colonoscopy and want to share your experience, or maybe my story has made you a little less skittish. Either way, let us know in the comments!
Thank you for stopping by today, and please, if your doctor has recommended a colonoscopy, don't put it off.
It's that important!
- Colonoscopy Prep Tips | Colorectal Cancer Alliance
The tips and tricks in this article were offered by real people who have gotten the procedure.
This is another good resource, and although covers much of the same stuff as the site above, it's always good to learn as much as you can.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.