Seven Lessons I’ve Learned from Five Colonoscopies

When my primary care doctor told me seven years ago that I might have Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis and would need to see a gastroenterologist, my first worry was that I’d need to have a colonoscopy. Sure enough, the GI said that she couldn’t tell me what was wrong until she’d taken a look, and scheduled me for an upper endoscopy and a colonoscopy the following week. Since it was only a week away, I didn’t have much time to panic, but I still had a lot of fears and questions.

Now that I’ve had five colonoscopies, I can say that it does get easier. It’s not fun to know that you’ll need one every year or two for the rest of your life, and I still get anxious before them, but I’ve learned a few things along the way. 

Note: This is not a comprehensive guide and I am not a medical professional. Please follow the instructions you receive from your doctor’s office and contact them with any questions.

Make sure you understand the instructions.

About a week before the procedure, I make sure to pick up my prescription for the prep and read through all of the instructions from my doctor’s office. If I have any questions, I call and ask. I felt awkward and embarrassed the first time I called, but the nurses are used to answering questions about procedure preparation and it’s better to make sure you understand and get it right the first time than to need to redo the procedure.

Get clear liquids that you actually like and get a variety.

The day before your procedure, you can only have clear liquids (no red, blue, or purple colored liquids). For me, that part is torture. Before my first procedure, I bought a bunch of jello cups. I hate jello, but I figured if it was one of the only things I could eat all day I’d get over my dislike. Turns out no amount of hunger can make me want to eat jello. I’ve learned that I like to have a variety of options over the course of the day: in the morning, I like to have some apple juice and Vitamin Water, around lunch, I have some chicken broth so I can feel like I’m actually eating something, and in the afternoon, I like to have lemon Italian ice. I also drink a lot of Gatorade and water throughout the day.

Getting ready for a colonoscopy with Italian ice, Gatorade, Vitamin Water, and Suprep Bowel Prep Kit.

Getting ready for a colonoscopy with Italian ice, Gatorade, Vitamin Water, and Suprep Bowel Prep Kit.

Ask your doctor about different types of prep.

For my first three colonoscopies, I had GaviLyte, which involved drinking a huge jug of prep (half the night before the procedure, and half very early the morning of the procedure). It was awful. I felt like Dumbledore when he and Harry go into the cave to get the Horcrux in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry has to make him drink the poison.

Fortunately, there are now some better options available. Most of the prep is split-dose, which means you will do the first half the night before your procedure (usually starting around 5 pm) and the second dose sometime in the morning, depending on the time of your procedure. Because you will need to be finished a certain number of hours before your procedure in order to have anesthesia, if your procedure is in the morning you may need to get up in the middle of the night to finish the prep. Although this isn’t fun, split-dose makes the prep a little easier because you are not doing it all at once.

The one I like best is called Prepopik. The night before your colonoscopy, you mix one packet with eight ounces of water, and then drink five eight ounce glasses of water over the next two hours. Then early the morning of your procedure, you take the second packet with eight ounces of water, followed by three more eight ounce glasses of water. It doesn’t taste too bad and you’re mostly drinking water. For my last colonoscopy, I had Suprep, which is similar to Prepopik. In my opinion, Suprep tastes a little worse and is harder to get down. The night before your procedure, you drink 16 ounces of Suprep mixed with water, followed by two more 16 ounce glasses of water over the next hour. Then you repeat the morning of your procedure. I’ve also heard good things about Plenvu, but have not tried it.

The preparation is not fun no matter what. You’ll be drinking a lot and running to the bathroom a lot. But not all prep is equal, and it’s worth asking your doctor what they recommend.

Watch something fun when you start the prep.

I like to pick out a funny movie that I’ve already seen and put it on right before I’m starting the prep. That way I have something fun to distract me, but because I’ve already seen it, it doesn’t matter if I miss parts of it when I’m running to the bathroom. For my last procedure, I rewatched Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. If I’m getting up in the middle of the night to finish the prep, I like to pick something that will keep me awake and I also set alarms for when I need to drink the next glass of water or prep in case I fall asleep.

Have your procedure in the morning.

I like getting the colonoscopy over with first thing in the morning. I have less time to get anxious, and the sooner I get it over with, the sooner I can go home and eat and sleep. Last time I ended up having it in the afternoon, and while that meant I didn’t have to get up in the middle of the night for the second half of the prep, by the time I got to the hospital I was very anxious and feeling dehydrated.

You may say weird things when waking up from anesthesia, and that’s ok.

When I got my wisdom teeth pulled, as soon as I woke up I asked where my purse was (why I had brought a purse with me in the first place, I’m not sure). At one of my recent colonoscopies, I think I immediately freaked out about not having my glasses (they had taken them off for the procedure). At my last colonoscopy, I felt anxious beforehand about what I would say this time when I woke up. I’m pretty sure I started babbling about the government shutdown. Sure, I found it a little embarrassing to not know what I was talking about and why, but it’s completely out of my control and I’m sure the nurses are used to it, so I’m not sure why I spent so much time worrying about it.

If you have questions or concerns after your procedure, follow up with your doctor.

After my colonoscopies, the doctor or nurse usually came and talked to me and gave me the initial results and follow-up instructions. If you can have someone with you at that point, it’s helpful, since you’re usually still a bit out of it from the anesthesia. But don’t hesitate to call your doctor’s office afterwards if you have questions or want to go over it again. After my first procedure, my doctor prescribed Rowasa enemas, and I didn’t understand why she prescribed them or when I was supposed to take them, so I followed up.

Colonoscopies aren’t fun, but they are a necessary part of life with IBD. These are just a few of the things that have helped me get through mine. What tips do you have for getting through a colonoscopy? What lessons have you learned?