'At 49, I Became an Accidental Influencer—For a Very Intimate Reason'

Not long ago, I celebrated the last year of my forties by accidentally becoming an influencer of more than 25,000 people's large intestine.

I'll admit it—I'm an older mom who sometimes talks about embarrassing topics on social media. I've frequently been called "cringy" by my pre-teens, not only for what I say, but for failing to use new technology appropriately, and basically for existing.

So, in early 2021, after my son laughed at me for scrolling on Facebook to see what my friends were up to—something only "old people" do, apparently—I decided to tiptoe into TikTok.

As a writer of humor and essays, I figured I should better understand the platform, whose audience consists largely of people under 30. It's different from the text and photo-heavy social media I began enjoying in 2006, when I was in my mid-thirties and Facebook opened up to non-students.

Caren Lissner
Caren Lissner is a novelist and essayist based in New York. In early 2021, she shared a video about her colorectal cancer screening prep, which has since gained nearly 30,000 views. Rob Tannenbaum

It was recently reported that TikTok's best-performing videos run for 21-34 seconds, so I tested out the theory by making a light-hearted 28-second clip about Pete Davidson's relationships with women, followed by a post about wanting to hide inside and read on New Year's Day. The posts got about 200 views each within one day.

Then, while deciding what the topic of my next video should be, I contemplated a matter near and dear to my heart: my health going into my 50s.

Health posts on social media

It's been sobering to see my generation progressing through middle age on social media. In my first years on Facebook, friends in their mid-30s posted sonogram photos to announce pregnancies—a practice I'm glad seems to have fallen out of favor. But 17 years later, those thirty-somethings are entering their fifties, and I see different sorts of health announcements on Facebook daily.

Sometimes they reveal a cold or COVID-19, but occasionally I read news of a more threatening long-term illness. These announcements are an important way to curry support, especially for people who are isolated, but they also remind me of my own mortality.

One kind of revealing health post seems to have replaced sonogram posts among my generation—the "I'm going through colonoscopy prep today" post.

While these posts are what my pre-teens would call "cringy," they have a benefit: in 2021, the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommended that people get their first colorectal cancer screening at age 45. That means health insurance can cover the tests at a younger age.

These posts among my generation will raise awareness, but I suspect the reason so many folks are quick to share news of their screening is because the preparation for the procedure is extensive and perhaps a bit draining.

One must take pills the day before and drink as many as 12 glasses of water to flush their system before the procedure—I read an entire book sitting on the toilet during prep for my colonoscopy. The day of the procedure, one is put under sedation while the doctor checks for signs of cancer, and can remove pre-cancerous polyps.

Complaining about colonoscopy prep has seemingly become a new rite of passage amongst Generation X—in fact, at one point two years ago, I saw two male friends on Facebook say they were doing the prep the same day. They didn't know each other and I offered to connect them as "colon buddies," but they politely refused.

Going for my colorectal cancer screening

Caren Lissner
Caren had her first colonoscopy in her late 40s. The doctor found four polyps that he removed, one of which was an adenoma. Caren Lissner

As with all science, the findings and recommendations around colon or rectal cancer are always evolving. But I knew I wanted to make sure I wasn't in danger, so I got my first colonoscopy in my late 40s. The doctor found four polyps that he removed; one was an adenoma, which means it had a chance of becoming cancerous someday.

I've known women who died young of colon cancer, and a friend whose sibling was diagnosed with it and survived it in her early 50s. I also lost three beloved, beautiful great-aunts to colorectal cancer before the mid-1980s, so I'm hoping not to follow in their footsteps.

I still remember a room full of raspy-voiced relatives who laughed and told stories on Sundays when I was little; there might have been more adults laughing in that living room if there had been better screenings back then.

Posting about my screening on TikTok

Caren Lissner
The views on Caren's video continue to climb and she hopes will increase in March, during national Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Caren Lissner

In March 2021, I decided to post on TikTok about my own screening. At the time, there was a popular video about a woman who discovered an apartment behind her bathroom mirror. In my clip, I pulled back my bathroom mirror to reveal a medicine cabinet with the box from my colonoscopy prep pills.

"They recommend that you get one when you turn 45," I said, over spooky background music. "Kids! Don't grow up too fast, because this is what you have to look forward to. And it's very creepy."

It was meant to be funny, but also to raise awareness. And it did. The video quickly racked up views amassing nearly 30,000 views by early 2023. It continues to climb and will likely reach further in March, during national Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.

Shortly after sharing the clip the comments flowed in. "LMAO," wrote one woman, which seems appropriate.

"Wow that super creepy I would never want to go there," wrote a young-looking man, who's definitely in for a treat.

Does it bother me that I exposed my intestines to the world? Not really. I've helped normalize the screenings for thousands of people, who likely will face the same thing, and may live longer because of it.

At the end of 2022 I got my second colonoscopy, since my doctor had recommended I return in two to three years. This time, the doctor found no polyps, which means I'm cleared for five years. If they had seen no polyps the first time, I could have waited 10 years for another one.

While social media can mislead us into thinking a few posts are representative of the whole world, it can also give us important tools and facts to decide whether to respond to a particular risk.

I've noticed folks embracing the nonsensical premise that access to health news and information—when accurate and fact-checked—causes fear, which I believe is the opposite of the truth; fear comes when our information is restricted and we don't get the freedom to respond. Most of us wouldn't want to live in places where that happens.

This summer I'll be getting a mammogram, and perhaps I'll post about it. The best thing about preventative medicine is that it means I might live long enough to be even more cringy to my kids, and perhaps cringy to my grandkids—and, as my pre-teens will readily tell you, there's no screening or cure for that.

Caren Lissner is a novelist and essayist based in New York. She is the author of Carrie Pilby and is finishing up a humorous memoir. You can visit her website here or follow her on Instagram at @CarenLissner.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.