Your Colonoscopy: 7 Common Myths Debunked

7 colon cancer myths

Everyone has reasons for not getting a colonoscopy. Often, it’s based on misunderstandings – both about the procedure and about colon cancer, says Carol A. Burke, MD, Director of the Center for Colon Polyp and Cancer Prevention in Cleveland Clinic’s Digestive Disease Institute.

People may not realize that colon cancer is one of the most preventable cancers – and that a colonoscopy is a short, mildly uncomfortable test that can save their life.

Below, Dr. Burke shares seven of the most common misunderstandings she hears from patients about colonoscopies, based on 15 years as a gastroenterologist.

Myth #1: “I’m not at risk for colon cancer.”

The truth is: Everyone is at risk, One in eighteen American men and women will get colon cancer in their lifetime. Adults above age 50 need to have a colonoscopy because the great majority of colorectal polyps – which are the precursors of colon cancer – occur after age 50. Removing polyps prevents colorectal cancer.

Myth #2: “If I don’t have any symptoms, I don’t need a colonoscopy.”

In nearly all cases, colon cancer starts as a precancerous growth in your colon, which usually doesn’t cause symptoms. A colonoscopy detects polyps so doctors can remove them before they turn into cancer. The idea is to do this before they cause symptoms. On average, endoscopists performing colonoscopies find precancerous polyps in 15 percent of women and 25 percent of men age 50 or over.

Myth #3: “There’s no way I can drink that prep stuff!”

Drinking a bowel preparation is one of the leading deterrents to having 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 you take half the prep the night before and the other half on the morning of the procedure.

Myth #4: “A colonoscopy isn’t accurate.”

In 2008, a study reporting that colonoscopies may not completely protect against getting colon cancer gained a lot of media attention. But in that study, many colonoscopies were not complete and performed by general internists and family physicians who may not have had adequate experience to do the colonoscopy well.

More recent studies confirm that experience really matters when you choose who performs your colonoscopies. For a high quality colonoscopy, make sure your physician has specialized training in performing colonoscopies and tracks his or her outcomes as part of performance improvement.

Myth #5: “A colonoscopy is too painful!” or “I can’t be sedated enough.”

Actually, 99 percent of patients are adequately sedated through conscious sedation or twilight sleep and can be comfortable during their colonoscopy. Most patients don’t even remember the exam! Some hospitals also offer monitored anesthesia care for patients who require deeper sedation. 

Myth #6: “It’s too risky. My friend had his colon perforated during a colonoscopy.”

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

Myth #7: “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. Other things you can do: Improve your diet, maintain a normal body weight, exercise and avoid smoking.

More information

Take our colon cancer risk assessment! Also, find out more about colon cancer, including prevention.

  • Dawn Anewday

    They why do they tell 80 year olds not to have a colonoscopy? Because of the incidence of perforations.

    • CylonesRUS

      And we are not going to live forever,, we are going to die of something even if it is just old age, anyways. I know, I have CLL, possible prostate cancer just waiting to exploded (my PSA has been at 7.7 for years now. No worries, had a good enough life, still active:).

  • CIci Girl

    My mom had colon ca so I’ve had 7 or 8 colonoscopies. Now I have diverticulosis & diverticulitis from all of the inflating.