Health Matters: Tips for prepping for your colonoscopy

Health Matters

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It's colorectal cancer awareness month, so you are likely hearing a lot about how important colorectal cancer screening is for people age 50 and over. Everything you are hearing is true. Screening saves lives. While there are several tests available, none is better than a colonoscopy, which actually screens for cancer and can help prevent it.

Of course, there are a lot of things we'd rather do than get a colonoscopy. For many, the preparation — which usually involves drinking a hefty dose (think several liters) of not-so-tasty liquid — is the hardest part. This liquid-laxative combo — as unappetizing and disruptive as it is — is absolutely crucial for giving the doctor a clear view of your insides. And that's what the test is all about.

Apart from visualizing yourself living a long and healthy life and shouting things like "down the hatch," there are a few helpful tips for getting through your prep.

When you schedule

There are a lot of different kinds of colonoscopy prep. Talk to your doctor about your concerns. For instance, if you are worried about drinking a lot of liquid, your doctor can recommend a lower-volume prep. Prescription preps are more costly, while over-the-counter ones are more affordable. They also come in a variety of flavors or no flavor at all.

1-2 weeks before

Arrange to take your prep day and the day of your colonoscopy off from work. Most people choose to be sedated, so you must arrange transportation to and from your colonoscopy. Read your prep instructions thoroughly, and call your doctor or nurse navigator with questions.

Get the products referenced in your instructions as well as clear liquids, soft toilet paper and baby wipes, drinking straws, hard candies, fresh lemons, and baby diaper rash cream or ointment for anal skin irritation. Also, if you are using an unflavored variety of prep, you can add Crystal Light or Kool-Aid powder. Stick with lemon, lime, or orange flavors, as red and purple dyes can interfere with the test results.

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Think about what you will wear and how you will spend your prep day. Many people like loose-fitting clothing. You will need a bathroom close by, as bowel movements can come on suddenly when you are drinking your prep.

This is a great time to start a new book, knit or crochet, watch a few movies, listen to podcasts, or read some magazines. Swing by your favorite book or yarn store and treat yourself! Whatever you choose to do, let it be something relaxing.

2-3 days before

Limit fiber and eat smaller meals. Beans, nuts, whole grains, and raw fruits and vegetables are high in fiber and make it harder for the doctor to see colon polyps. You may be tempted to overeat as you anticipate hunger, but eating smaller meals will make emptying your bowels easier and more comfortable. Some even recommend that starting a soft or liquid diet earlier than necessary makes the whole process a lot easier.

Prep day

First thing, mix and chill your prep. If your doctor recommends a prep that can be split, or taken in two doses several hours apart, try different flavors for each. You can also chase the prep with another clear liquid or suck on a fresh lemon slice or hard candy to get rid of any aftertaste. Drinking your prep ice cold and through a straw may be helpful. Some recommend applying ointment to the anus in advance of irritation as a preventive measure.

If you have followed the instructions up to this point, you are very well prepared. Sit back. Relax. When it's all over, you will be grateful that you took this important step for your health. You've done everything you can to detect and prevent colorectal cancer. If you're like most people, you won't have to do it again for 10 years.

Laurie Reyes, RN, is a Colon Screening Navigator at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. This column was written as a part of Southwestern Vermont Medical Center's observance of Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, which is celebrated each March. For answers to questions about colorectal cancer screening, call 802-447-5551.


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