If there’s one thing you can rely on when you turn 50, along with more-expensive-than-normal gifts, jolly ‘you made it!’ type comments, and the wistful realization that you’re half a century old, it’s an invite from your doctor to have your first colonoscopy – unless you have a history of colon cancer in your family, in which case it may not be your first rodeo.
Actually, it’s more of a summons when you go in for your 50th annual physical. Technically, I guess, you can turn the summons down, but I definitely wouldn’t – despite what you’re about to read.
So what is a colonoscopy? I pretty much knew it involved a tube with a camera inserted into your bum to detect possible colon cancer, but I didn’t realize it was also a preventative measure when you reach the big 5.0. The only time it entered my sphere was when my tipsy neighbor Sam, bellowed, ‘Get ready for your colonoscopy!’ at my 50th birthday party. I chuckled back, assuming it was a joke, and promptly forgot about it.
Until a few days later, when a mysterious padded envelope appeared in my mailbox with these bizarre instructions inside: Poop, dip the teeny stick (provided) into it, put the stick back into the tube it came in, and mail it back in the envelope provided. Surely I would have got a heads up from my doctor for mailing my poop? Was this an elaborate ruse by Sam to wind me up?
My doctor confirmed it was indeed the preliminary test for colorectal cancer but even after I got the all-clear she still recommended I do the actual colonoscopy. So what should I expect? I needed more deets. I consulted my friend, Emma, who it turned out had already had a colonoscopy twice despite being 45 because her mom has had colon cancer.
This Is What She Told Me…
- The prep is the worst. You have to drink some nasty liquid and then you basically sit on the toilet for hours and can’t function normally all day.
- During the colonoscopy, if you can imagine being anally sexually assaulted, it’s the closest thing to that. (Sorry, I know that’s harsh but they were her exact words). This is because you aren’t completely sedated so you know what’s happening when the camera goes in but the sedative makes you unable to move, speak, or stop it, she explained. She paid $700 extra the second time around to be completely sedated due to the trauma.
- You wake up in a room with lots of other people in beds farting loudly and it stinks. Then you start farting and you can’t stop. Images of spending my final days in an asylum with a load of mad farting people permeated my brain.
In case this is all feeling a bit much, here’s Bridgerton’s Duke of Hastings (a.k.a. Rege-Jean Page) assuring you that it’s all going to be just fine. (You’re welcome. And, yes, I know I’m old enough to be his mother.)
Back to reality, and while I’d assumed a colonoscopy would be uncomfortable and embarrassing, I couldn’t get over how horrific it all sounded. In this day and age? It reminded me of my shock at how nobody has yet designed a less painful mammogram experience other than brutally shoving and squeezing your boobs into that archaic-looking machine that women still have to endure.
‘The prep is the worst part’ was echoed by countless women in my trusty local Facebook women’s group. But why did the instructions say I need a driver to the clinic? Would I feel like an invalid? Would I pass out? I was actually most worried about not eating for a whole day because hunger brings on my migraines.
I asked two different nurses who called to give me preparation instructions if I could be completely sedated but both said I would be put under ‘twilight’ sedation, and I could get no defining details of what that actually meant.
This Is What Actually Happened…
As extremely bad luck would have it, I did indeed get a migraine the day before prep day, which didn’t fully disappear for the next four days. It was probably caused by anxiety and exacerbated by eventual hunger. I was absolutely dreading the colonoscopy after Emma’s description but I knew it was go time, especially as I’d delayed it twice already. After all, there could be something wrong that needed detecting. Plus, I’d scheduled it so prep day was a Sunday and my husband could look after the kids. In hindsight, this was a big mistake due to my daughters’ incessant chatter about snacks.
I’d picked up the prep liquid two days before, which was in powder form at the bottom of a huge plastic container – like the ones you keep spare gas in in your car. The size of it was alarming but the accompanying prescribed gas pills at least made me smirk. My kids are going to love that part, I thought.
The instructions were to stop eating solids and switch to a liquid diet at least 24 hours before the colonoscopy. Mine was scheduled for 7.45am on Monday so just before midnight on Saturday I scoffed a big crusty white bread roll smothered in butter and blueberry jam (which always results in bloating pain, so was completely stupid but delicious), 3 chocolate chip cookies, and ¾ big bag of BBQ Lays chips, like my life depended on it. This was glutenous even by my night-snacking standards, but my logic was that treating myself before starving myself might make me less miserable.
The Dreaded Prep Day…
Prep day came and I stayed out of sight, mostly in bed feeling sorry for myself, which wasn’t hard given my migraine. I felt slightly pathetic and knew I was overreacting but I just kept counting the hours. I drank the suggested vegetable broth, ate gross clear jello, and drank lots of herbal tea.
I didn’t have to start the prep liquid until 6pm, so technically I could have had a fairly normal day just without solids, contrary to some comments I’d read. ‘Stay close to the bathroom once you start the prep’, others wisely advised.
As instructed, I added water to the fill line over the powder and got started. The bottle was now a gallon full. Instructions were to drink 8oz every 15 minutes until it was 3/4 empty. The liquid was lemon flavored, thank goodness, but became gross as I had to drink cup after cup of it. Almost three hours after I’d started the liquid there was still no result. I was panicking. Had I gone through all this for it not to work?
Then it all changed. But the frequent trips to the toilet were a walk in the park compared to forcing the mixture down my throat on schedule. As the hours wore on it felt like I was drowning my lungs in it. I could barely keep it down.
I tried using mouthwash or licking a lime after every dose, both of which helped. But the sheer volume of thick liquid was overwhelming. It felt unnatural and almost dangerous to drink so much of it, and bizarre to make myself feel ill on purpose.
My husband kept checking in on me but I ushered him away due to all the toilet drama. When I’d finally taken most of what was instructed and could physically drink no more, I fell asleep, empty and weak.
The Day of the Colonoscopy
I was instructed to wake four hours prior to the op (mine was scheduled for 7.45am) and resume drinking. When my alarm went off at 3.45am, I wanted to cry at the thought of downing more of the prep liquid. I couldn’t give up this far in though. And down it I did, 8oz every 15 minutes – until after 3 doses, I vomited it all up. I was devastated. Had this ruined it all?
At 7.30am my husband dropped me at the clinic and I sat crouched over waiting for my name to be called. For 75 long minutes. They were running late and I had to sip water to stop myself passing out from fatigue and migraine.
When they finally took me in, I was hooked straight up to an IV and assured that the sedative for the colonoscopy contained a heavy painkiller that would zap my migraine. When I told the nurse I couldn’t believe how much I had to drink, she casually remarked, ‘Oh yes, a gallon would be too much for you compared to someone who weighs more’.
What??? So the liquid could have been less due to my weight but I had a got a one-for-all amount? I couldn’t believe it. Surely this is something the pharmacist would have worked out accordingly, even roughly.
Next, the nurse asked what I’d drunk since finishing the liquid. A few sips of water in the waiting room, I answered. She frowned, and said, ‘You’re supposed to have nil by mouth’. What??? (again). Nowhere did I read that, plus I would have passed out while waiting without some water. Tough luck, it turned out. She said they would have to delay my colonoscopy for at least TWO hours because even sips of water could cause aspiration during the procedure. I was dumbfounded.
When I was finally wheeled in, a very nice female doctor explained to me that a tube with a camera would indeed be inserted where the sun doesn’t shine so that she could check for tumors, polyps, or any other signs of colon cancer, and that it should all take about 20 minutes.
She said any polyps would be removed if possible during the procedure and that the camera could possibly cause a tear in the colon lining, which could possibly be fatal. Okey dokey. An electronic disclaimer appeared in front of my face, which I had to sign. The anesthetist told me the sedative was being inserted into my IV, and that when he once went to London… Boom! I was out like a light.
I woke up to the doctor smiling and saying the procedure was over, and that everything looked great and healthy. I was out the door (in a wheelchair) 30 minutes later on the way back to my kitchen pantry – woohoo!
So as it turned out, the actual colonoscopy was fast, straight forward, and I have no recollection of it. And while the whole prep experience was awful, it was definitely made much worse by my migraine. The good news is, I don’t need another colonoscopy for ten years if I don’t develop symptoms. And I didn’t even need the fart pills!
- MY PERSONAL TAKEAWAYS:
- DO believe that prep day is the worst part. It’s true. But check what time you have to start the liquid as it’s only then that you need to stay home – near a bathroom.
- DO ask your doctor if they can customize the prep liquid amount based on your weight.
- DO check in advance whether you can still take any other medication you regularly do during the prep in case you vomit (my migraine meds were pointless, for example).
- DO keep in mind that however difficult a colonoscopy can be, you probably won’t need another one for ten years if you get the all clear.
- DON’T assume your experience will be the same as someone else’s, including mine. Good luck!
- DON’T drink water right before the colonoscopy. Double check this with your doctor first, though, as I wasn’t warned not to.
- DON’T worry that the prep liquid will taste bad. Mine didn’t, so it depends what you’re given. Maybe ask the pharmacist in advance.
- DON’T schedule prep day when your kids are home. Their endless chatter about food will only add to your misery.
- DON’T hang around your significant other too much on prep day. They say you should keep a bit of mystery in your relationship. But thanks to prep day, any remaining mystery in my marriage went the same way as everything else that night – down the toilet!
Please note: As always, speak to your doctor about any medical procedure you are undertaking. I am sharing my colonoscopy experience for general informational purposes only.