Colonic Enemas and Colon Cancer

Last Modified: November 11, 2002


Dear OncoLink "Ask The Experts,"
I suffer from chronic constipation. My mother, who also has suffered from constipation, has recently been diagnosed with colon cancer. I have recently found that colonics help alleviate the symptoms, but I am unsure about how effective this therapy may be for prevention of colon cancer. Also, how often are colonics suggested? Can you become dependent on them to have a bowel movement? Any guidance would be appreciated.  


Carolyn Vachani RN, MSN, AOCN, OncoLink's Medical Correspondent, responds:

Although chronic constipation can cause problems such as hemorrhoids, diverticulitis, and bowel obstruction, it has not been shown to cause colon cancer. There are many ways to address chronic constipation including changes in diet to include more fruits and vegetables, drinking more water, increasing the amount of exercise you do, and using stool softeners, bulking agents (like Metamucil), and laxatives only as needed. Chronic use of laxatives and enemas can cause you to become dependent on them to have a bowel movement. Talk to your doctor or a gastroenterology specialist about the best therapies for you.

A high colonic involves the inserting a plastic tube 20 to 30 inches into the rectum and pumping large quantities of liquid into the intestine (up to 20 gallons). The fluid is drained, and the process is repeated several times. The liquid used can vary, but most commonly is water, herbal solutions or coffee. In contrast, a regular enema uses about a quart of liquid. The process may sound harmless, but actually can lead to serious problems including infection from contaminated equipment, electrolyte imbalances, or perforation of the intestine, all of which can lead to death. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration classifies colonic irrigation machines as Class III devices, meaning they cannot legally be marketed except for medical test preparation (such as a radiologic or endoscopic exam).

Colonic therapy goes back to the days of the ancient Egyptians, who felt that it helped to rid the body of toxins that caused death and disease. It became popular in the United States in the 20's and 30's, when colonic irrigation machines could be found in most hospitals and doctor's offices. Science proved the theories of detoxification with colonics wrong, and they became less popular. Despite the problems with colonic therapy, it has recently seen an increase in popularity. It is known that most digestion takes place in the small intestine, the remaining waste moves into the colon, where water and minerals are removed before it passes through the rectum and is eliminated. There is no evidence that toxins can accumulate in intestinal walls due to poor elimination of stool (or constipation).

Reference: American Cancer Society's Guide To Complementary and Alternative Cancer Methods (2000) By: David S. Rosenthal, MD