Conquering your colonoscopy fears

dr. Vishal Patel with a colonoscope

Gastroenterologist Dr. Vishal Patel with a colonscope, a thin, flexible tube with a camera at the end, that enables a physician to see the lining of the colon.


Let's be honest, having a colonoscopy is not high on anyone's list of fun things to do. But, it is an important screening procedure that could potentially prevent cancer, which everyone can agree is a good thing.

During a colonoscopy a physician inserts a thin, flexible tube with a camera attached at the end, into the rectum. They use the camera to examine the lining of the colon and detect polyps (which can cause cancer) or other abnormalities. If polyps are detected they can be removed on the spot.

More than 7,000 colonoscopies are performed at North York General Hospital (NYGH) every year for either routine screening or through our Colorectal Cancer Program, which provides expedited colonoscopies for anyone with symptoms or risk factors associated with colorectal cancer.

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Gastroenterologist Dr. Vishal Patel with a colonscope, a thin, flexible tube with a camera at the end, that enables a physician to see the lining of the colon.

Going through the procedure for the first time can be a bit unnerving. Patients worry most about the preparation and experiencing pain during a colonoscopy. It's important to remember that colonoscopies are a commonly performed procedure by physicians who have received specialized training.

Our team leads, NYGH General Surgeon Dr. Nancy Down and Gastroenterologist Dr. Vishal Patel, address some of the fears and misconceptions about colonoscopies to ensure people don't avoid getting it done.

1. Keep calm and colonoscopy

A colonoscopy is a common, low-risk procedure performed in community clinics and hospitals. Health care providers understand that when it comes to having a colonoscopy, especially for the first time, patients are nervous. At NYGH our care team, which also includes anesthesiologists and nurses, provide a friendly and warm atmosphere to help reassure patients. A great deal of attention is paid to making patients feel comfortable so that they are calm and do not experience pain. 

2. It takes less time than you think
The entire procedure takes between 20-30 minutes. At NYGH colonoscopies are performed by our highly trained general surgeons or gastroenterologists, who are supported by nurses and other members of the health care team. They use the latest techniques to ensure the procedure is safe and effective. When the procedure is finished patients are usually able to be up and walking within 15 minutes. Everyone is assessed and monitored regularly after the procedure to ensure they recover completely before going home. Patients who receive sedation have to go home accompanied by a friend or family member.

3. The prep
Drs. Patel and Down don't sugar coat the prep — it's a lot to go through. The preparation involves consuming only clear liquids for approximately 20-24 hours prior to the procedure and a laxative drink that will cause you to use the washroom. The drink has improved over time and has only a mild taste. 

It's is very important to follow all of the steps in preparing for a colonoscopy because it allows the physician to have a clear view of the colon. If the prep is not done correctly, lesions could be missed and you may wind up having to repeat the whole process. 

4. A test that can prevent cancer
Sometimes patients may delay getting a test or procedure because they are worried what the results will show. This type of avoidance is never a good thing — in most cases the earlier a medical problem is found, the better the outcome. It is during a colonoscopy that polyps are usually found and removed; 85% of colorectal cancers present as polyps, which makes routine colonoscopies for men and women over the age of 50 an important cancer screening and prevention tool. Patients with risk factors such as a family history of colon cancer, polyps or concerning symptoms, may require a colonoscopy at an earlier age.

5. Cleaning the equipment
Patients sometimes ask how we clean the equipment. At NYGH, we have an entire department dedicated to reprocessing medical devices to ensure they are clean and ready for patient care. The scopes used during a colonoscopy are disinfected by our automated endoscope reprocessors. All reprocessing staff involved in this process are certified to ensure this work is done to the highest standards. Watch the reprocessing team in action in one of our previous videos: Behind the Scenes: Cleaning surgical instruments.

If you have concerns about your health or have a family history of colon cancer, speak with your doctor regarding whether a colonoscopy is an appropriate procedure for you. Or contact our patient navigator directly at to initiate the referral process.

This article was first published in the February 2019 issue of The Pulse.

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