January 24, 2019

The not-so-obvious benefits of a colonoscopy

by

From fitting into my skinny jeans to taking a really great nap, I experienced a variety of surprising colonoscopy benefits.

You know the saying “easier said than done?”

When it came to the healthcare advice I had dished out for the better part of 15 years, I found that to be true. As communications officer for Vanderbilt’s cancer center, I had long believed in — and touted — the benefits of colon cancer screening.

Yet somehow, when I celebrated that birthday (50), I found all kinds of reasons to put off my colonoscopy. I delayed for 13 months and felt guilty the entire time. After all, I had glibly told hundreds of people over the years that colonoscopy – an examination of the colon under light sedation – was the “gold standard” for catching colon cancer early and that they should all do it as soon as they turned 50. (The American Cancer Society in 2018 changed that recommendation to 45.)

I still don’t know why I procrastinated. I was motivated. A dear colleague died of colon cancer that wasn’t caught until it was advanced, and another’s life was likely saved when his first screening at age 51 detected an early tumor.

And I had heard firsthand from a few slightly older friends who had already done it. They all reported that the worst part was the “prep” to clean out the colon ahead of time, and that it really was no big deal.

I finally scheduled it 13 months later. Guess what? The worst part was the prep (and even that wasn’t that bad). It was no big deal.

Ever the optimist, I would dare say there are some surprising, unexpected benefits of a colonoscopy:

  • My belly was flat and my skinny jeans fit better than ever … for a few days anyway. If you want to jump-start that weight-loss plan, what better way than a liquid diet and complete colon cleanse?
  • I caught up on Netflix. When I explained to my niece, then 12, that I was going to spend my Sunday afternoon taking laxatives to clean out my colon so the doctor could see any polyps or tumors the next day, she had one wise piece of advice: “Better make sure your devices are charged.” I took my laptop into the bathroom and binge-watched old episodes of “Mad Men.” The hours I was restricted to the bathroom (about three, I think) flew by.
  • It was a bonding moment for my adult daughter and me. Because of the sedation required during the procedure, you must have someone with you to drive you home. I remember very little about waking up in recovery, the drive home and getting settled on the sofa — but my daughter does and I know it. So I no longer tease her about the silly things she said and did when I was driving her home after getting her wisdom teeth removed.
  • I had the best nap of my life. After I got home that morning, I slept all afternoon. It was the peaceful sleep of a child. I don’t think I’ve had a more satisfying a nap before or since. A bonus: The first meal after more than 24 hours on a liquid diet or no food/drink at all was delicious!

Of course, I’m making light of something very serious. The best thing about getting a colonoscopy is that you just might save your life.

Colon cancer is the third most common cancer – affecting men and women equally – and the second most common cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.

The good news is that colon cancer tends to develop slowly and in a very predictable way. Caught early, when the tumor is confined to the colon, it is very curable. And because most colon cancers start as precancerous growths called polyps, you can even prevent it by having a colonoscopy by finding and removing those polyps before cancer develops.

Luckily, my results were clean. I don’t have to have another screening for 10 years.

Please do as I say and not as I did: Don’t put it off.

If you have a family history of colon cancer, please talk to your doctor about when you should begin routine screening. You may be advised to start sooner than the recommended age.

And above all else, if you are headed to the bathroom for your prep, make sure your mobile devices are all well charged.

Cynthia Floyd Manley is content strategist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and has more than 20 years’ experience writing about health, medicine and medical research.

If you are 45 or older and haven’t had a colonoscopy, now is a great time to do it. Vanderbilt Health’s team can help with any referral needed from your doctor.

Learn more