Colonoscopy: What’s Stopping You?

Get advice on common concerns about this life-saving test


Everyone has reasons for not getting a colonoscopy, and Carol A. Burke, MD, of Cleveland Clinic’s Digestive Disease Institute, has heard them all.

But nothing changes the fact that colon cancer is one of the most preventable cancers. Below, Dr. Burke addresses common concerns about colonoscopy, based on 15 years as a gastroenterologist.

“I’m not at risk for colon cancer.”

The truth is: Everyone is at risk. One in 18 American men and women will get colon cancer in their lifetime. (See below for additional risk factors.)

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“I don’t have any symptoms.”

In nearly all cases, colon cancer starts as a precancerous growth in the colon called an adenomatous polyp, which usually doesn’t cause symptoms. A colonoscopy detects polyps so they can be removed before they turn into cancer and cause symptoms. On average, 15 percent of women and 25 percent of men age 50 or over will have precancerous polyps detected by colonoscopy.

“I can’t drink that prep stuff.”

Drinking a bowel preparation is one of the leading deterrents to having a colonoscopy. The good news: Today’s bowel prep is easier than before. Rather than having to choke down a gallon of solution, patients can choose half-gallon options. What’s more, many physicians prescribe a split dose, where half the prep is taken the night before and the other half on the morning of the procedure.

“A colonoscopy isn’t accurate.”

A recent Canadian study reporting that colonoscopies may not completely protect against getting colon cancer received a lot of media attention. But in that study, many colonoscopies were not complete and were performed by general internists and family physicians who may not have had the experience to do the colonoscopy well. Improve your odds of having a high quality colonoscopy by making sure your physician has specialized training in performing colonoscopies and tracks his or her outcomes as part of performance improvement.

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“A colonoscopy is too painful.”

Actually, 99 percent of patients should be able to be adequately sedated through conscious sedation or twilight sleep to be comfortable during their colonoscopy. Most patients don’t even remember the exam! Cleveland Clinic also offers monitored anesthesia care for patients who require deeper sedation.

“It’s too risky.”

When performed by specially trained professionals, colonoscopies are safe. For example, the risk of perforation is less than 1 in 1,000 cases, and the risk of bleeding is less than 1 percent.

“If I get colorectal cancer, then it was meant to be.”

Not true. Colon cancer is preventable. Here’s how: Begin screening for colon cancer (colonoscopy is the preferred screening strategy) at age 50, or earlier if you have risk factors. Change your lifestyle now: improve your diet, maintain a normal body weight, exercise and avoid smoking.

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  • NoBenzos

    I can’t tolerate the sedative.

  • disqus_LIw3uPBBzp

    My gastroenterologist suggested I get a colonoscopy to rule out an autoimmune disease a few years ago at age 38. My gastroenterologist discovered two advanced polyps (adenomas). Even though they were benign, they would have become cancerous in 5 to 10 years. This came as a shock as there is NO history of cancer in my family. Now I am REQUIRED to get a colonoscopy every year to remove polyps. Each colonoscopy has revealed yet another advanced polyp. To everyone reading this: PLEASE do not hesitate to get a colonoscopy. It saved my life and I hope it will save yours.

  • jo ann lester

    Ireatment for chronic diverticu;itis with diverticul9minthe col;on

  • johnjam

    Keep in mind many can not afford what they charge for this procedure. There should be an affordable path for all that need it.

    • Linnie Montgomery Cunningham

      yay yay

  • Daveanddebbie Westby

    you did not mention no insurance or funds!!!

  • Kathy

    I will be having my 6th colonoscopy next week and I dread the prep, it is the worst part of this test. The best part is when I’m told that everything is fine. My father died at the age of 42 of colon cancer so as much as I don’t like the prep I do my follow up for colonoscopy. Wish me luck.

  • Deblyn53

    I had one 5 days ago, it is not as bad as you think. one & a half hours is worth it. no problems what so ever!

  • Keturah

    I have serious diverticulosis… 12 bouts of diverticulitis in past 2 years. What I fear? During the prep my colon will rupture. In the past, prepping for surgery & my one colonoscopy 15 years ago, I actually passed out from the pain. Does this ever happen…that a diverticula bursts during prep…because I know it happens in life itself.
    BTW, there is a *virtual* colonoscopy using an MRI.
    But still the prep!

  • Mammy W

    What are the chances of having your spline torn loose while having a colonoscopy?

  • Jenny

    Hard to drive yourself to the hospital for the procedure and then home again under effects of anaesthesia. Not everyone has family members to drive them, and taking a taxi is not cool at all.

  • Linnie Montgomery Cunningham

    I’m 67. Despite going through two all night preps, I’ve had two failed Colonoscopies, due to either an adhesion or some other sort of malformation. In the first case the doctor just sent me home, and I thought I did something wrong. In the second case, 5 years ago another doctor, admitted their was something wrong with me structurally gave me a Barium Enema. The pain was awful.