You never forget your first time: getting a colonoscopy

By Sarah Mahoney

Sarah Mahoney went in for her first colonoscopy at age 45. She walks you through the process and what it was like.

For reasons unknown, colorectal cancer is on the rise in younger adults. That’s why it’s so important to begin screening at age 45!

The day I turned 45, my social media feeds were immediately peppered with ads for Cologuard and reminders to get screened for colorectal cancer. It made me giggle a bit—those ad demographics really work—but the seriousness of the message was not lost on me. As someone immersed almost daily in cancer prevention through my work as creative and brand director at the Prevent Cancer Foundation, I know that colorectal cancer is on the rise in younger adults.

When my health care provider mentioned the screening at my annual wellness visit and asked if I would like to have it, I immediately answered yes. She gave me the option to use an at-home screening test or to have a colonoscopy. I chose the latter, knowing it gives an opportunity to find precancerous polyps (growths on the wall of the large intestine or rectum) and remove them then and there. I was given a referral and a list of local gastroenterologists—and so began my screening journey.

I found a specialist who was in my insurance network and made an appointment for a consultation. Within a week I met with the practice’s physician’s assistant (PA), who walked me through the prep and procedure after asking about my medical history and family health history. She kindly answered any lingering questions about what would happen and didn’t skimp on the details of what happens after you drink the prep. All that was left to do was make my appointment for the procedure. I was worried it would be several months out, but they had availability within the next couple of months. With thorough instructions and a prescription in hand for the infamous colonoscopy prep drink, I left feeling confident and ready to take it on.

A shopping cart full of colonoscopy prep foods, including applesauce and Jello.

Nothing like a cart full of colonoscopy prep food!

The week before my procedure, I started to adjust my diet to reduce fiber, berries and nuts—all things that like to stick around in your colon. I gleefully indulged in white bread, mashed potatoes and white rice. Three days before my colonoscopy, I replaced my fruit intake with unsweetened applesauce and canned pears and kept my meals as plain as possible. The day before I was down to clear liquids only, which didn’t get tough until mid-afternoon. I cycled through chicken broth, green Jell-O (red, purple and blue colors can stain the walls of your colon and interfere with your results), apple juice and banana popsicles until it was time to drink my prep. I don’t need to go into details about what happened next—you know—but I will say it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I made sure to have a variety of clear beverages containing electrolytes on hand to recover and stay hydrated.

The following morning, I arrived at the practice a little tired and very thirsty—you have to fast before your procedure. Your provider will give you exact directions about when to begin fasting based on your appointment time. After changing into my gown, I was set up with an IV and wheeled into the procedure room. The doctor made sure to answer any final questions, and then it was time. The anesthesiologist positioned me on my side, began her count and then I was out.

After I woke up in recovery and shook off my grogginess, I was given some juice to drink. Once the nurses were assured I was fully awake and able to walk, I was escorted into an exam room to change and wait for the doctor. The doctor brought the film from my procedure and explained he had found and removed two polyps. I asked him what the situation would have been had I come in at age 50 (the previous recommended age to begin colorectal cancer screening for those of average risk). He said he wouldn’t have been able to treat the polyps during the colonoscopy, and I would have likely needed additional surgery and would have possibly been faced with a cancer diagnosis.

All of this really hit home, and the importance of following screening recommendations was suddenly so personal. My husband picked me up—you must have a ride after the procedure—and I went home to have a snack and rest easy. I had given myself the gift of a better outcome.

While I wasn’t thrilled to learn I had polyps, the relief of knowing I had taken preventive action absolutely squashed that feeling. If you are of screening age or have a family history of colorectal cancer—don’t wait! Meet with your health care provider and make a plan to get screened.

READ MORE | I never knew my mom had cancer: Caitlin’s story

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Learn more about colorectal cancer..

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