How I Survived My First Colonoscopy, and So Can You
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Health & Fitness

How I Survived My First Colonoscopy (and So Can You)

The long, perilous, frequently-delayed-for-no-good-reason journey into my butt

A small toy figure looking into an empty toilet paper roll
Matt Chase

Ten years ago I got to interview Jon Spencer, the frenetic garage-punk front man for the Blues Explosion. I spent the ‘90s making terrible decisions while listening to his music, much of it involving illicit substances. By the time I finally got to meet him, we were both in our 40s.

What do you talk about when you finally meet your punk rock hero? Well, obviously, if you’re in your 40s, you talk about why doctors are suddenly so obsessed with exploring your butt.

Spencer told me about his recent prostate exam, and I shared details of my upcoming colonoscopy. We both agreed that all the poking and prodding was ridiculous. We were still young men — vital and strong — whose buttholes should be left in peace!

“I think my doctor just wanted the money,” Spencer told me. “That's not a joke.”

Spencer’s prostate was fine, and I never ended up getting that colonoscopy. I have no family history of colon cancer, so my doctor gave me a pass. “Just get one when you’re 50,” he told me.

I finally got around to it last summer. I’m 52.

I’m already seven years past the (new) recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concerning timing of a first colorectal cancer screening. It all happened too fast. I went from “Relax, you have time, no need to worry” to “Jesus Christ, you haven’t gotten a colonoscopy yet? Do you want to die?!”

Colon cancer is the third most deadly cancer, killing over 50,000 people every year. But it’s also one of the easiest to detect and cure if it’s caught early.

If you’re like me, your first reaction to that warning is probably, “This sounds serious. I’ll make an appointment for next summer!”

My wife and doctor both agreed I should do it sooner. So I made the necessary arrangements, spitefully, with the same enthusiasm I’d give to helping a friend move a couch out of a third-story walk-up.

I’d heard bad things about colonoscopies. Like that a 12,000-foot fiberoptic tube was involved. Which was confusing. Isn’t a human colon just 5 feet long? Where’s the rest of that tube going? Were they bungee jumping into my colon?

Granted, I’d heard this number from other guys, the same unreliable narrators who told me in middle school that Rod Stewart was once rushed to the hospital to have a gallon of sperm pumped from his stomach. 

Eric Klein, a urologist and emeritus chair of Glickman Urological & Kidney Institute at Cleveland Clinic, assured me that I’d gotten it very wrong. “It’s a few feet long,” he said. 

What wasn’t exaggerated was the prep. I was instructed that on the day before my procedure, I could consume only water and foods like Jell-O, chicken broth and hard candy. A veritable grandma buffet.

But nothing prepared me for the bowel-cleaning agent, a magnesium citrate cocktail called MoviPrep. The name is deceiving; it sounds fun and festive, like Movie Prep. Oh, cool, I’m going to see a movie? No, no, you’re not. It should be called S--tYourPantsPrep. 

It tasted like a smoothie made of dog turds, urinal cakes and sadness. I’m pretty sure it’s the same formula they used to kill Socrates.

But that’s the bad news. The good news is, the colonoscopy was painless and easy. I took a long nap and woke up feeling refreshed and relaxed, not like someone who’d just endured a rectal Fantastic Voyage.

And I was immediately greeted with the news that I didn’t have cancer. Which is a seriously awesome way to wake up from a nap.

As I lay in a hospital bed, waiting for the sedative to wear off, I thought about Jon Spencer and his prostate and the look of outrage on his face as he talked about the medical indignities that we, as men over 40, were now forced to endure. 

“You can grow old with experience and grace, but you're still trapped,” he said. “Your body's still going to fall apart. There's nothing you can do about it."

Maybe so. But Spencer is still alive and kicking, still ripping it up onstage, singing about afros and bell-bottoms. And I’ll be there in the crowd the next time he rolls through my town, making more bad decisions to his music.

Our 50 year old bodies may be falling apart. But we’re both still here because we let doctors put stuff up our butts. And for that, I’m weirdly grateful.

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