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How My First Colonoscopy Saved My Life

I was kicking myself for not getting it done earlier.

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illustration of woman showing her stomach with green vine wrapping around
Marta Monteiro
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At the age of 53, I had my first colonoscopy. Woo-hoo! Fun times. But guess what? It saved my life. The gastroenterologist found a suspicious mass, which had been causing some mild discomfort and GI issues for several weeks. Two days later, a surgeon removed a tumor the size of a golf ball that was Stage I colon cancer. I was fortunate to not need any chemo or radiation, but I was kicking myself for not getting the colonoscopy years earlier. After all, I have a history of colon cancer on both sides of the family.

While the American Cancer Society recommends everyone get a baseline colonoscopy at 50, people with a family history of the disease or other risk factors should get one earlier.

What’s the rush? With proper screening, colon cancer can be prevented or caught early, making it easier to treat. Cancer prevented? Yep, here’s how: When you get a regular screening, the gastroenterologist can find and remove a polyp immediately during the colonoscopy, thus eliminating the chance that it can turn into cancer.

Plus, symptoms often don’t appear until after colon cancer has grown or spread. In fact, my oncologist said my cancer probably had been growing symptomless for years. (It can take 10 to 15 years to develop into cancer!)

Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. And yet, close to 1 in 3 people in the U.S. who should get tested have never been screened. Yikes!

Got some fears about the prep or the procedure? Let me walk you through mine.

The Prep
Most people dread this part, but it wasn’t bad — just a little uncomfortable and inconvenient. The day before my colonoscopy, I ate no solid foods and drank a prescribed prep solution, which was an orange-flavored powder I mixed into a glass of water. I drank the prep solution twice, about five hours apart. (This strong laxative helped clean out my colon, so the doctor could clearly see any polyps during the procedure.) Before and after each prep solution, I drank clear liquids, including apple juice and chicken broth.

Tips: Schedule your colonoscopy on Monday so you can do a “weekend prep” without interfering with work. Eat lightly the day before your prep. Ask for a prep solution that needs only a small amount of water to mix in (mine called for only 5 ounces compared with the one gallon that some preps require). Plan to stay home all day — you’ll want to be near your bathroom. Finally, invest in a small container of soothing flushable wipes.

The Procedure
I had my colonoscopy done at an ambulatory surgery center. It’s less stressful and less costly than a hospital. The nurse gave me an IV and the anesthesiologist sedated me, so I didn’t feel a thing. During the 15-minute procedure, the doctor used a lighted, flexible tube with a tiny camera to view the rectum and entire colon. Unlike most tests where you wait days or weeks for the results, the doctor tells you immediately afterward what she found. Normally, if she finds no polyps, you shouldn’t require another colonoscopy for 10 years.

Tip: You’ll need someone to drive you home after the colonoscopy, as it takes a while for the grogginess of the anesthesia to wear off. Also, you’ll be ravenous after the procedure — so treat yourself to a meal at a nearby restaurant.

Author’s bio: Lisa Beach is a freelance journalist and copywriter. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Eating Well, Parents, USA Today and many other publications. Check out her website