By Melanie Ayotte, Boomerang staff
Not even a week after I had my third colonoscopy in eight years, I see a commercial on television - featuring none other than Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne - offering a "fantasy" trip to New York City for a free colonoscopy. The offer is definitely out of the ordinary, but I wish I had known about it a few weeks earlier. After all, if I have to have "it" done, I may as well get a trip out of it, right?
I'm one of the millions of "lucky" Americans who have a key risk factor for colon cancer: a family history of the disease. My father was diagnosed with colon cancer, so that means I get to be on the fast track for preventive care. Forget the 10 year plan that's recommended for most folks my age; I'm on the five year plan. So, when I hear people who have never had one talk about how bad it must be and how much they dread having it done, I can't help but become a bit of a "colonoscopy ambassador." If you are over age 50 and haven't had one yet, you definitely should talk with your doctor about having one.
Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States, and the lifetime risk for developing it is about 1 in 20, according to the American Cancer Society. The risk is slightly higher in men than in women. People who have no identified risk factors should begin regular screening at age 50. Those who have a family history or other risk factors for colorectal polyps or cancer should talk with their doctor about starting screening when they are younger and getting screened more frequently.
It's best to think about colonoscopies in two parts: the prep and the procedure. The prep is not the same for everyone because different doctors use different protocols. Most call for you to eat nothing (or nearly nothing) for 24 hours before the procedure, and use a medicine or combination of medicines to help your body clear its digestive tract. Your doctor may prescribe a prep kit or recommend over-the-counter kits or laxatives. Be mindful of costs and talk to your doctor about options if your insurance does not cover the prep.
I've had three colonoscopies and used a different prep each time. No matter what your doctor's office or pharmacy tells you, you can't make the medicine taste good. Some suggest you add flavoring, some recommend adding the medicine to lemon-lime soda or sports drinks. For me, the key was making sure it was cold, adding ice, and holding my nose while drinking the solution. I've also learned that immediately rinsing my mouth with apple juice got rid of some of the aftertaste. Once the prep begins to work - trust me, you'll know - plan on staying really close to the bathroom and spending some time there. Stock up the bathroom beforehand. Also have a book, some magazines or hand-held games in there to help pass the time.
If possible, schedule your colonoscopy as early in the day as possible. The procedure can be done in a hospital or a medical office building, so make sure you know where you're going. You'll also need someone to give you a ride to and from - due to the sedatives they'll use, they won't let you drive yourself home. Before your procedure, staff will start an IV and ask you a lot of the same questions over and over again. This can be annoying (especially on an empty stomach), but is for your protection. Most likely, they'll get you prepared in one room, and then move you to the procedure room when they are ready for you.
In the procedure room, they'll give you a sedative. Once it takes effect, most people really don't care about or remember what happens for the next 20-30 minutes. As the haze starts to lift, you'll be faced with staff encouraging you to pass gas. After a few hours, you'll be on your way home or, more likely, to breakfast or lunch. That's the best thing about a colonoscopy: when it's done, it's done. You might nap on and off for the rest of the day - both from the sedative and the odd eating habits you've had for the past day - but otherwise, it is life as usual.
The death rate from colorectal cancer has been dropping for more than 20 years. Through regular screening, doctors can detect and remove polyps before they develop into cancers and before you would see any symptoms that something was wrong. If cancer is present, early detection means better chances for treatment and even a cure. Today, there are more than one million survivors of colorectal cancer in the United States. Don't let your fear of the unknown keep you from this potentially life-saving procedure.
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