As preachy as I have been about every woman getting regular mammograms, I have been less vocal about colonoscopies. Yes, I know colorectal cancer kills — an estimated 50,000 people in the U.S. were predicted to die this year from the disease. I knew it killed Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Montgomery, Walter Matthau, Joel Siegel and Tony Snow, among so many thousands of others. But I focused more on breast cancer, which attacked my mother twice, getting my mammograms on a fairly regular basis and encouraging others to do the same. Let’s face it — mammograms are easy.
I know doctors encourage all patients to be screened for colorectal cancer beginning at fifty (earlier as indicated by symptoms or family history). My doctor strongly recommended it when I turned fifty three years ago. But I brushed off that advice. Just the thought of a colonoscopy made me shudder. It seemed so much worse than a mammogram. It’s unpleasant, it’s invasive, it’s expensive … it’s embarrassing. Even to blog about. I had no intention of having that test this year. Maybe later, I thought. Maybe when I’m sixty or so.
A few weeks ago, when I had my annual physical, there was a worrisome result on one of the routine screenings my very thorough doctor always conducts (a fecal occult blood test). A second test also came back positive. She recommended a colonoscopy, and I reluctantly agreed. After all, I have a strong family history of cancer, I’m over fifty, and I’d met my insurance deductible for the year … so why not? I was sure nothing would be found. I figured her tests were wrong, or could be explained by the anti-inflammatories I’d taken recently for tendonitis in my shoulder.
So, I did the prep. Twenty-four hours of clear liquids, lime jello and banana popsicles with two liters of a strong, rather oily laxative as a chaser. It was not pleasant. I get cranky when I’m hungry. But to be honest, it wasn’t quite as bad as I expected.
Because I’ve been blessedly healthy, never having been hospitalized for anything except having my three children, I was a little nervous. Again, it just wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. An IV was placed in the back of my hand, I was sedated so that I felt nothing and barely remember any of the procedure, and it lasted less than thirty minutes. There was absolutely no pain, and no embarrassment. The medical staff made sure of that. I was amazed at how much I had dreaded this procedure for so long, and it really wasn’t a terrible experience.
When the surgeon informed me that he’d found and removed a very large polyp that would almost certainly have turned cancerous within a year or two, if it wasn’t already (a 1 to 2 percent chance, he said), I was very glad that I finally listened to my primary care doctor’s advice. The lab results will be back in a few days, but whatever the results, the polyp is completely gone and will require no follow-up except another screening next year.
I said in a former post that pink ribbons aren’t enough to fight breast cancer. It requires action, in the form of regular screenings and funding for research. I will now be an advocate for regular colorectal screenings (in addition to annual pap smears for women and prostate checks for men). With one daughter in medical research, another receiving her MD in a few months, and a son who’s a pre-med major, I get plenty of encouragement (and by that, I mean nagging) to stay healthy myself and to serve as an advocate whenever I can for preventative health care.
Cancer is a heartless, relentless adversary. It sneaks in stealthily to claim its victims. It is up to us to be vigilant against it. In addition to regular screenings, we should be eating more fiber, fruits and vegetables, and less fat. If you smoke, please consider quitting. For myself, I need to lose a few pounds and be more physically active, since writing is a sedentary job and lack of exercise has been linked to colon cancer.
If finances are holding you back from having your regular screenings, believe me, I understand. I’m self employed. I carry a very high deductible just to afford the premiums. Health care reform must be high on the new administration’s agenda. Too many uninsured and underinsured Americans are dying because they can’t afford routine preventative care. But there are ways to get those screenings, by working with the providers to make payments, if necessary, or through public assistance programs. Talk to your doctor.
If embarrassment or fear or a busy schedule are holding you back from any of those screenings, I urge you to reconsider. I will make time and budget for that second colonscopy next year (they’re recommended only every five to ten years if nothing is found in the first screening). I won’t look forward to it, but I’ll have it. Cancer may take me some day, as it has so many members of my family — but I’m not ready yet. I have more things to do, more places to see, more books to write.
I’m in this fight for my life.