A friend of mine just had a routine colonoscopy and got me thinking about how much I dread having one again. I had a colonoscopy (my first and so-far only) as part of the process I went through to be diagnosed with IBS. Not everyone has to have a colonoscopy to confirm a diagnosis of IBS, but many people have various tests to rule out other possible conditions since there is no single test that can definitively prove you have IBS.
As everyone says, the procedure itself isn’t that bad – it’s the prep that’s terrible. The prep for a colonoscopy involves not eating, drinking only clear liquids (like broth), and drinking a solution the day before that completely cleans you out. It’s fairly intense and requires that you stay close to a toilet for several hours until there’s nothing but fluid coming out. Not pleasant, to say the least.
For the procedure, you’re given a medication that, while you’re technically still awake, makes you groggy and unaware of time. I remember talking to the gastroenterologist before the procedure, and then I don’t remember anything until afterwards, when I spoke to her again. After the sedation wears off, you can go home, and all you want to do is eat since your diet the day before was so limited.
My unexpected after-effects
My colonoscopy results were clear – no polyps were found. Polyps are abnormal growths that can turn into colon cancer but can easily be removed during a colonoscopy. My gastroenterologist said my colon showed signs of internal hemorrhoids, but that they had already begun healing. The negative results of my colonoscopy helped my primary doctor determine my digestive issues were due to IBS. And normally, other than the increased hunger due to the restricted diet prior to a colonoscopy, people just go on about their lives.
Unfortunately, I had such intense abdominal pain and diarrhea for several weeks afterwards, I visited my doctor many more times. Although I had received a diagnosis of IBS, this was the worst flare-up of IBS symptoms I’d ever experienced. Nothing I did eased the pain and distress, and I felt fatigued and anxious. I took more sick days from work during the six weeks after my colonoscopy than I can remember ever taking before.
My doctor suggested that the natural “good” bacteria that normally live in our digestive tract had been knocked out of balance with the colonoscopy prep. I began taking several different probiotics and ate foods like yogurt that have beneficial bacteria. (This was before I realized or became sensitive to dairy, which I no longer eat.) Eventually, the intense symptoms subsided, but it took about six weeks. In the middle of that flare, it felt like forever.
Until next time
That first colonoscopy was many years ago, and since I don’t have a family history of colon cancer, I won’t need another until age 50. (The American Cancer Society and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommend routine screening for adults who do not have symptoms beginning at age 50. People who have additional risk factors, such as a personal or family history of polyps, colorectal cancer, or inflammatory bowel disease, are recommended to have colonoscopies earlier and more frequently.)
I know from friends and family members that the prep has gotten a little easier – there’s less liquid solution to ingest, although the resulting clean-out is the same, and I dread the possibility that my body might react with a massive IBS flare again. Some people may find it strange that I’m less afraid of what they might find and more afraid of an intense IBS flare. Despite my dread, I know I’ll find the courage to have another colonoscopy. Detecting cancer early provides the best opportunity to treat it successfully, and removing polyps before they can become cancerous prevents that possibility altogether.