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Putting off your colonoscopy until next year… again? There’s nothing to be afraid of! Here’s exactly what you can expect and how the procedure has changed—for the better.

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cancer killer in the U.S., but those diagnosed have a 90% survival rate when it’s detected early. With one in three adults over the age of 50 passing on the recommended tests for colon cancer, it’s time to clear some things up about colonoscopies.

“Fear and anxiety. Those are the biggest reasons people are opting out of this incredibly important colon cancer screening,” said Dr. Christopher Buzas, Geisinger board-certified and fellowship-trained colorectal surgeon.

But you’re looking to change that—you’re looking to get on top of things and get ready for your first colonoscopy. Because there’s nothing to be afraid of.

What exactly happens at a colonoscopy exam?

Colonoscopies are the best way to detect colon cancer early. The procedure is quite simple—it typically takes 30 to 60 minutes and you’ll be able to return to normal activities the following day.

During a colonoscopy, your doctor will use a long, flexible tube called a colonoscope. It has a tiny video camera at the tip of it which allows the doctor to view the inside of the entire colon. This procedure pinpoints changes or abnormalities in the colon and rectum and is an opportunity for your doctor to remove any abnormal tissue such as polyps.

“Tissue samples, or biopsies, can be taken during a colonoscopy to determine if a change or abnormality is cancerous,” says Dr. Buzas. “In many cases, we can remove tumors during colonoscopies before they develop into cancer.”

While anesthesia is an option for the procedure, some people decide to pass on receiving it. It could shorten the procedure time by up to half, but the option is always yours. If you do choose to take anesthesia, be sure to arrange for someone to drive you to and from your appointment.

What seems to scare people off most is the preparation before the procedure. Preparation for a colonoscopy typically consists of a liquid-only diet and the use of laxatives the day before. However, depending on your doctor, this may be slightly altered.

What is colonoscopy prep like?

"The process of getting your body ready for a colonoscopy is significantly easier than it was in the past," says Dr. Buzas.

You still need to clean out your colon for the colonoscopy to be performed properly—any residue may obscure your doctor’s view. This can lead to a longer procedure, a missed polyp, or even the need to repeat the procedure soon.

While, in the past, one large part of colonoscopy prep included drinking a lot of water mixed with laxative and electrolytes the day before your appointment, some doctors are taking things in a slightly different direction today. Sometimes a combination of both liquid and pill laxatives are used, and your dose of laxatives may be split between the night before and the morning of the procedure.

Your doctor may ask you to alter your diet before your procedure as well, having you eliminate solid foods 24 hours before the colonoscopy. Here are some foods you can eat during the three to four days leading up to your exam:

  • eggs 
  • fish 
  • lean meats 
  • low fiber foods
  • well cooked vegetables (no skin)
  • white bread

You should avoid eating these foods in the days leading up to your colonoscopy:

  • fatty foods 
  • nuts and seeds
  • legumes 
  • popcorn 
  • raw vegetables
  • tofu
  • tough meet 
  • whole grains 

Also, avoid food or drinks containing red, blue or purple food coloring, which could be mistaken for blood during your exam. You may not be able to eat or drink anything after midnight the night before your colonoscopy.

Be sure to look over the instructions your doctor gives you to ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible and doesn’t need to be repeated sooner than necessary.

"Even though colonoscopy prep may not be your favorite life experience, it's the first step toward potentially saving your life,” says Dr. Buzas. These aren’t something anyone looks forward to, but the positives outweigh the negatives by a landslide.

Dr. Christopher Buzas, colorectal surgeon, sees patients at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, PA. Click here for more information about scheduling a colonoscopy or call 800-275-6401.

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