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Healthy Outlook

Surviving the Prep for a Colonoscopy Will Increase Your Chances of Survival

By Dr. Erica Dorfman

Monday, November 2, 2015

You may have heard that the worst part of getting a colonoscopy isn't the procedure itself, but the prep beforehand. I hate to admit it, but it's true — preparing for a colonoscopy is, well, a crappy experience. There is no way around it.

The procedure itself involves inserting a long flexible tube with a camera through the rectum and into the intestines. While that may not sound pleasant, a colonoscopy only lasts like 30 minutes and patients are sedated and generally unaware of what's happening. The day before, though, patients can't eat and they have to drink a jug of laxative to clear out the colon and rectum so the doctor can see what's going on in there. It's the pits.

And it's totally worth it because it may save your life.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), of cancers that affect both men and women, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States and the third most common cancer in men and in women. Screening tests have been shown to decrease mortality from colorectal cancer.

There are different screening methods, including fecal tests, that are not as invasive as colonoscopies or sigmoidoscopies (the latter procedure uses a shorter tube than a colonoscopy). But those tests are not nearly as effective for detecting potentially cancerous polyps. Removing polyps can help prevent colorectal cancer from ever starting.

Most people don't need to start thinking about getting a colonoscopy screening methods until they hit age 50. People at higher risk, including those with a family history of colon cancer, should get screened at a younger age.

OK, hopefully I have now persuaded you that colonoscopies can save your life, let me offer some tips on how to cope with the prep required for the procedure.

  • Get it right the first time: You don't want to have to go through the prep again because you didn't do it right initially. So carefully follow the instructions from your provider. The day before the procedure, don't eat solid foods and drink only clear liquids – you should be able to see through your drink. Examples of clear liquids include clear soup, tea, jello, water, clear juice and coffee. Do not eat or drink anything on the day of your exam and do not add any milk to your tea or coffee. Just one drop of milk or creamer could mess everything up.
  • Avoid high-fiber foods for a few days before the prep: This will be one of the few times in your life when your doctor will say to avoid fruits, nuts and veggies and indulge in meat, pasta and even white bread. These foods will be easier to clear out.
  • Make the bathroom a nice place to be: You're going to be spending a good amount of time in there—might as well make it as comfy as you can. Have reading material and, if you have one, a tablet nearby. Also: Make sure to have wet wipes on hand.
  • Make the horrible laxative drink more tolerable: The drinks often come flavored, but if they don't you can add lemonade flavored Crystal Light. Drink it chilled. You can also try using a straw to limit the amount of punishment to your taste buds.

And that's all there is to it! Easy, right? Okay, maybe not, but once again—it's worth it. Cancer screening saves lives.

Let me leave you with the bit of data from the American Cancer Society: Cancers found in an early stage, while they are small and before they have spread, are more easily treated. Nine out of 10 people whose colon cancer is discovered early will be alive five years later and many will live a normal life span.

Now get out there and get screened.

Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at theairdoctor@gmail.com. For more health information, go to www.cchealth.org.
About the Author

Dr. Dorfman is a family medicine resident at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center.