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7 colon cancer myths

Your Colonoscopy: 7 Common Myths Debunked

Know the truth about a test that can save your life

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.

Tags: colon, colon cancer, colon removal, colon surgery, colonoscopy, health screenings
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  • Kathy Hudspeth

    Had my first colonoscopy this week. Not knowing how to take the prep, it was a long process. As far as the actual test, you get twilight anesthesia, and the test is over quickly. Awaiting results of test. Dr removed 2 polyps.

  • Amy Collins

    I had put off a colonoscopy for 11 years even though I had a previous history of cancer. I mixed the prep with ginger ale and it was tolerable. The test itself was absolutely easy, I never felt a thing and the anesthesia was great! They found 3 polyps that proved to be nothing. I cannot express how glad I had this easy test done! I only wish I had it done earlier and done away with my fear and worrying!

  • mary beth

    I had rectal cancer a few years ago and have had many colonoscopies as a result. My last one was without anesthesia of any kind and honestly wasn’t that bad, and I was able to drive home myself afterward.

  • Jeffrey

    It really is a piece of cake. Prep now is much easier. I’ve never felt a thing. Over the years they’ve found and removed a few polyps. Having the flu is much worse and I feel I’ve done all I can to stay healthy. I always go back to Dr. Meyers, Brunswick, oh because he takes so good care of me and my wife. Thank you Dr. Meyers.

  • Margaret

    How long should you wait after a heart attack to have a colonoscopy?

    • The_Beating_Edge_Team

      Dear Margaret if you had a heart attack – you need to ask your cardiologist when he wants you to have this procedure. betsyRN

      • KerriAnne

        You most likely are on some type of blood thinners after having a heart attack. Your cardiologist would have to approve stopping the blood thinners for a 3-5 day period prior to the colonoscopy.

    • watersisland

      At least 2 – 4 hours.

  • Rosanna

    My father died of colorectal cancer, undetected till the last four weeks of his life. He was only 63 and a very vigorous, trim man. Looking at him I always thought he would get into a much older age without health problems.
    As a result, I have had two colonoscopies starting in my mid forties, so far negative. Can’t wait to my next, wondering if the required 10 years is too long an interval.
    Please get screened, it is not much of a deal and he can save your life.

    • Beth

      My father had colon cancer. I was told that I need a colonoscopy every 5 years because of the family history. They found polyps last time so now I have been told to come back in 3 years.

    • KerriAnne

      Actually with the risk factor of family history of colorectal cancer your screenings should be every five years

    • Brye

      Actually, your right. I was told before my surgery, to come in every 5 yrs and then when it became a possible inherited issue that gap closed even more to every 3 yrs. I am thrill for you that you have had good test results. But, I want really commend you for being very smart in your getting regular tests with it being in your family. I hope you can let others know your situation so that it takes some of the fear out of going to test. That is the only way we all are going to stop Colon Cancer is by being tested and early detection. Good health to ya!

  • MV55

    How do you avoid becoming hypoglycemic during this process when you are not allowed anything but water to drink? I’ve put off having this done for this reason. Fasting is just not an option for me.

    • lisa

      You don’t have to drink just water. U can have Popsicles, italian ice, jello, broth, black coffee, soda pop and clear juices with no pulp

    • Brye

      Talk to the Doctor doing the test and let them know your condition and they will tailor it to your condition. Not having this test for everyone is NOT AN OPTION. I know personally, That Colon Cancer doesn’t discriminate with gender or otherwise!!! I was 36 when I lost all of my Large and part of my small intestines due to “Marked Diverticulosis” and 3 cancerous lesions. I now wear a permanent pouch. I am so grateful they found all of this early in my life or I might now be here now. There is nothing to be afraid of regarding having the test done today. Everyone should have this test done at least by 50 yrs old. I am so happy I had it done younger. The earlier detection the better the cure. The longer you wait and they do find something….. well, I think you get my point. The pouch is NOT a death sentence at all. I named mine..LOL.. “Ziggy” its just easier to except is all. “Ziggy”, saved my life is the way I look at it. I dated, I got remarried, I scuba dived etc., after it is not the end of your life. In fact, with the suffering I was in before… it was just the beginning of a new pain free life for me ;) Good luck out there everyone and do not be afraid and everyone get your Colonoscopy done early if you can as it just might save your life. God Bless

    • jason

      There is a solution, but you should discuss this with your doc. Generally speaking, hypoglycemia is only caused by antihyperglycemics taken without adequate intake of carbs. So if you take metformin or insulin, then your dosages will have to be adjusted for the time when you are fasting. I have witnessed multiple colonoscopies (I’m a nurse), and the process is a lot more difficult (with a higher chance of missing something) without a good, thorough bowel prep.

      • Delia

        I’m hypoglycemic though not diabetic. I don’t take any special medications, just make sure I have some protein and complex carbs when I start feeling hungry. When I expressed my concerns to the nurse-practitioner before my colonoscopy, she basically blew me off, told me they treated people w/ diabetes & hypoglycemia all the time w/ no problems. So I just followed the recommended diet and I arrived at the center the morning of my procedure in full hypoglycemic attack. Everything went wrong. The nurse hadn’t told the doctor or any of the staff what I said. I was in a terrible emotional state, which is what happens in a hypoglycemic attack, but during the procedure my bp and heart rate went really low and they had a terrible time waking me up from the anaesthesia. I remained too groggy to leave until they let me eat the snack I’d brought w/ me. So I had a really awful experience. And I haven’t read anything here that reassures me that things have a chance of going better if I do it again some day.

        • Gort1

          Gawd …grow up!

    • Gort1

      Wait and see how chemo affects your appetite.

  • Kim Miller

    I had a colonoscopy at University of Louisville Hospital in Louisville Ky several years ago (less than 10). I informed the doctor, asper my referring doctor, that I was highly tolerant to medications due to thenumber of them I was currently taking. The doctor performing theprocedure insured me he had done thousands of these tests and that everythingwould be fine.

    I can tell you EVERYTHING that went on from the time the procedure began until I waspushed out of the procedure room door. He even said, “Well, I usually give these post-procedure instructions to the driver, but you’re so awake, I’ll just tell you.”

    I will NEVER have another colonoscopy done at U of L Hospital. I will discuss
    before the next one, the fact that this was a very UNCOMFORTABLE
    procedure for me to endure, every MINUTE of it was excruciatingly painful, and
    insist on propofol or whatever takes to insure that, as so many people told me
    beforehand, “You won’t remember a thing,” I just wanted people to know that Versed does not work for everyone and not every doctor is as concerned as you might think about whether you suffer unnecessarily.

    See the link for “Opposition to Kentucky HB 1-Reform HB 217 aka “Pill Mill Bill”

    https://www.facebook.com/pages/Opposition-to-Kentucky-HB-1-Reform-HB-217-aka-Pill-Mill-Bill/595049517218134

    • Shorty

      A good anesthesiologist would have further anesthesized you after you told him you could feel everything. Sorry about your problem. It should have been a piece of cake.. Please don’t put off having another one because of that bad experience.

      • Kim Miller

        Thanks for your concern, but I will just go somewhere else next time

      • Byre

        I second this Comment/Reply!! Find a Doc that you are comfortable with. Waiting is Not an option. You all do not realize that these bad experience are very rare out there compared to the painless experiences out there. I am being very honest here. Please do not be afraid of the Test, imagine if you waited to long due to fear and they found cancer??? Now, that is something to fear, not the test. Turn it around in your mind. Seriously. Colon Cancer can be stopped with early detection. God Bless

  • Sharon Versteeg

    Our Doctors don’t use the gallon of prep stuff anymore. When I had my last colonoscopy, 5 years ago, I had to drink Miralax in the evening and took a Dulcolax in the morning.

  • Donna Marie

    The prep isn’t as bad as people make it out to be! Didn’t even know the test was being performed as I was in a twilight sedation. It was over before I knew it! Take the time and go, you will be glad you did!

  • adawitchy2u aka deb em

    I understand there is a ultra sound that can be done to check for polyps … the up side is no ‘prep’ and no risk of bleeding and no anesthesia … the down side is if you have polyps you will have to reschedule and do the regular procedure … I want to know where I can have that done because my first and last colonoscopy was a nightmare and was done by a specialist.

    • lisa

      There is no ultrasound that will detect polyps. There is virtual colonoscopy; however, you still have to prep, air has to be introduced into the colon and if polyps are found u still have to
      have a colonoscopy. Not only that but a lot of insurance companies won’t pay.

    • Byre

      Get your butt in for the Colonoscopy as soon as possible. Mine was inherited from my grandmother on my moms side of the family. I was diagnosed after my test at age 36!!! There is no time to waste when it is in the family already. You need to get to a Gastroenterologist soon as early detection is critical for long life my dear. There are NO Ultra-Sound for this!!! I am a retired RN and a IBS/Diverticulosis/Cancer patient. Just make an appt with the doc I spoke of above and get the test done. You won’t even know your having the test as you will be sleeping. God Bless and positive thoughts your way to have a clean test result ;)

  • jo52

    I had a colonoscopy three years ago for a pre surgery test. I ended up with a perforated colon and ended up in the hospital before my regular surgery. The doctor told me I was the first patient he ever had that had a perforated colon from him. So yes it does happen. I am fine but am scared to death to ever have another one. I believe the actual person who did the procedure was not the doctor but the intern that was with him. CC is a teaching hospital and many of their procedures are done by interns not the trained doctors. Prior to this colonoscopy I had as many as 5 colonoscopies done by regular GI doctors and never had any issues.

    • JNT

      I had a COLONOSCOPY done at CC after resections that had to be done due to my Crohn’s & Colitis. However, after requesting my medical charts, I found out that my colon had been perforated during the colonoscopy following my procedures. The doctors never told me it occurred; instead they claimed my 26 years of the disease was to blame when I did question them about it. I spent 6 months in that hospital and they treat you like a lab rat w/ all the interns. They should ASK a patient PRIOR to

    • John Connolly

      My wife is recovering from surgery following a standard colonoscopy. They did find a large polyp (non-cancerous), but they also “nicked” her colon. Thank God a leading colorectal surgeon was on duty. It’s been three weeks since the procedure and she’s doing well, considering.
      So, here’s the deal. Absolutely, have your recommended colonoscopy. BUT…Make sure you check the doctor’s credentials/history. Try to schedule your procedure in a hospital, not a clinic. When your doctor refers you for your ‘scope, ask him about follow up procedures, in the event of an emergency.
      Bottom line: know what’s going on: ASK QUESTIONS!

  • Dawn00

    People need to understand that putting this off isn’t a good choice. I had a sister with color cancer. It never returned to her colon, but she died of breast cancer. They say one isn’t related to the other. The prep isn’t bad and our surgeon doesn’t make us drink a gallon of stuff. We drink a small bottle of stuff that cost a dollar at the store and dulce lax tablets! It is worth peace of mind to have it done.

  • Tony

    Just recently heard that Medicare was going to cut off payments for colonoscopys for patients over 70.

    • Cushy

      Under Obama care chemo or radiation for cancer is not covered.My mom is 77 yrs old and has cancer.

      • ben

        Really??? You would want your poor mom having chemo or radiation at 77?? That’s abusive..

  • Denise

    honestly speaking i don’t have much idea about colonoscopybut the things which you share here that also we should not neglect…looking forward to know about this diseases in detail and also about the precautionary measures.

    • shelly

      I ignored 3 years of diahrea, chalked it up to stress, which is common. At the age of 47, had a colonoscopy, had one pollup removed, and it had cancer in it. Being diagnosed with stage 3 Colon cancer, because I ignored symptoms, is eye opening. Chemo, and an eliostomy will change your life. Don’t wait until 50. Listen to your body. A Colonoscopy is NOT as scary or life changing as cancer. Be smart people.

  • mk

    How often do we need a colonoscopy? ….we start at age 50…& then??

    • KerriAnne

      Depending upon if they find any polyps and if the polyps are adenomatous or hyperplastic would determine the timeframe for follow up screenings

    • Lesley Shell

      as an RN, ideally it is every 5 years after age 50

  • Adbrian

    I had one yesterday. The drink was cherry flavored(I could have selected lemon or multiberry) and quite palatable. The procedure was painles. Not having the procedure is foolhardy. I had no polyps.

  • Carol

    The prep stuff you have to drink made me so sick. I couldn’t even keep most of it down. As soon as I drank the stuff I threw it up. I was able to keep so e of it down but I felt like I was going to die. Why do they give the same amount to both men and women? Women are much smaller than men. I have talked to several other women who had the same experience. Even though I only got half the stuff down it worked and I was able to have the colonoscopy . I told the dr how sick I got but I don’t think she was listening. I will never have another one again until they change the prep stuff. It was that bad!

  • Kathy Craig

    Prepopik is a newer prep, just did it last week. I couldn’t keep golitely down but this, I would do tomorrow. So very easy to use. I would do another tomorrow, happily!

  • Nita

    My doctor said I can’t have this done because of the amount of fluid to drink. that scares me?

  • Catherine Cushman

    My dr said no dark liquids. Coffee…..?? I have had 2 colonoscopies. 2nd one was a nightmare. Kept throwing up the Miramax. They couldn’t find my veins. They stuck me over 20 times and dug around causing excruciating pain. Then they wheeled me on a Guerney across the hospital that took forever. So a nurse could stick me in the hand. The Dr screamed at me at the top of his lungs. Thanks to YOU. I’m 1 1/2 hrs behind. I cant do it with a pic line in your hand! And it is on the wrong side of ur body. I can’t work like this. OMG it was painful. They removed a polyp. That was 2003. Suppose to go back in 3 years never did. I have on scheduled this month. Not sure its worth the abuse. I m diabetic. Not sure if its worth passing out and going into a diabetic coma cuz I wont be able to keep my sugar up.

  • lane

    Sorry, but the prep is double God-awful. I’ve had many of them – ten in the last two years- and many different types of preps; gallon, half gallon, split dose…each one as bad as the next. If you like throwing up and becoming electrolyte deficient and having heart arrhythmia, then go for it. If you like running a fever because of dehydration and having your creatinine level go over the top- then go for it. It is beyond my comprehension that they can’t figure out something better. Can’t they just do a colonic/enema type of thing before the procedure? Oh, right, it would be too much trouble for the doctors. And we can’t have that! Must let the patient suffer for 24+ hours so they can maximize profit.

  • Cyndi Bullock

    I’m having my first this morning..I was given the Movieprep solution and it was so nasty I didn’t think I’d keep it down, there HAS to be better way..I haven’t eaten anything in 2 days and terrified I wont be asleep although they assured me I would,

  • Marie Ries Metz

    I had a colectomy 20 years ago so my colonoscopy memories are faint. I do remember the prep was awful, but the sedation was very relaxing. Certainly it is worth the discomfort to know you are free of cancer and disease.

  • Rose

    I’ve been having colonoscopy in my late 40s and I was diagnose with Divirticulites and palips and now I’ve had a colon surgery to remove some a year ago and now since Feb. 14 of this year I have been in and out of the Hosp. And then had to have another colon surgery to reconstruct it and I’m still having problems just wandering if the first surgery was really worth it ?

  • Betty

    I have had several. My mother died from colon cancer. But after doing the last prep I ended up in the ER not able to speak, saw only stars,could not walk, and was extrememly dehydrated. It took a week to recover , even after the ER visit plus another doctor’s office visit. And I Followed the doctor’s orders exactly. There has to be a better way for the prep. I am terrified to do another one. It’s not the test that absolutely terrifies me now, it’s the prep, to the point I cannot bring myself to do it. i am also a heart patient.

  • Kathy Larin

    I had one done a few years ago and the prep was awful. By the time I got it all down I was throwing up and dizzy. I take Linzess occasionally now for IBS. It cleans me out completely with just one small pill. Wonder why Dr. don’t use that instead.

  • Brye

    They have changed the prep and they can also tailor it to you if your extra sensitive to the cleanse. Just ask the doctor about it. I asked my Doc as I was very sensitive to it also and they didn’t make me drink all of it. ;) I had IBS/Diverticulosis for 20 yrs of suffering also. I did have many tests but at 36 they found my colon completely destroyed and 3 cancer spot so I lost everything in my gut but I am so much better off now. I thank God for that test! The walls of the Colon have to be completely clean so the Doc can see all of the Colon that is why. A pill will not do that efficiently. I understand where your coming from. I was like you as well. Good luck to you.

  • TONY CHACON

    HAD MY 1ST COLONOSCOPY TWO WEEKS AGO I’AM 61 YEARS OLD. PUT ME TO SLEEP WOKE UP A LITTLE LATER NO PROBLEM, AND I WAS WORRY ABOUT HAVING IT DONE.

  • Dawn Sampsell

    I had a gastric bypass July 30, 2013. Just wondering if it is safe to have this procedure. I have a very small pouch and I also am a diabetic on glucophage and levimer insulin.

  • CATRYNA49

    I had a colonoscopy in 1988. Never again!

  • Susan Axtell

    Hey Cleveland Clinic…remember Walter Levy, neurosurgeon? Thanks alot for sending him out into the world without letting people know about him. I’m disabled now.

  • Deb

    I recently had my first colonoscopy. I will admit I was very nervous. My Dr prescribed the 2-step prep & explained why he does. No, the prep isn’t much fun, but necessary. My Dr, the anesthesiologist & both nurses took the time to visit with me before my procedure. I was thoroughly sedated & remember nothing of the short procedure. I received a clean bill of COLON health & don’t have to go back for 10 years. The facility I used specializes in endo & gastro only.

  • Bob

    mixed the prep with gatorade and had no issues at all….prep was a snap and the colonoscopy was a breeze…..a stinky breeze…but a breeze..

  • Alexis Balch

    I have had 4, 5 on the 13th colonoscopies just this year, and I’m sixteen. Had I not had my first, I wouldn’t be here today. I have severe Crohn’s disease, and colonoscopies truly do save your life! Don’t PUT THEM OFF! You NEVER know what tomorrow could bring!

  • Cami

    Woke up both times during a colonoscopy screaming in pain after they had told me that would never happen to me again after the first time. I’m done with colonoscopies.

  • Eugene Trahan

    There is other preps they can if id they so wish. Start with a bottle of Magnesium Citrate, Then Miralax every 30 minutes ( this can be mixed with juice) I know I had my last like this and it is better then the gallon of salt water they want you to drink.

  • http://coachingbymichael.us/ Michael Freed

    Just had mine done. The prep was the worst part, but tolerable. I was out during the procedure. Everything came back clear, done for 5 years.