The Good: Colonoscopy Screenings Save Lives (Very, very good.)
Routine medical screenings have saved millions of lives. There are many tests we can take each year or every other year or every three months or whatever that will literally save our lives when our health care providers examine the results. Some of the tests are uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing but we march to the testing rooms knowing we must do this to live long healthy lives. Sometimes the tests reveal the worst: cancer.
Recently a friend went to her routine mammogram and the mammography revealed early breast cancer. They believe they caught it in time and she has now received treatment and has gone through some difficult months but her doctor believes her prognosis is good. Another friend went to her doctor for a routine annual exam and merely mentioned she had a tummy ache off and on for a while. She had pancreatic cancer and died six months later. She had no symptoms whatsoever other than the slight tummy ache.
Apparently by the time the patient “feels” something it’s already too late with pancreatic cancer. Better routine screening for early detection of that disease is under development because current screenings do not protect us. They just tell us how bad it is. The pancreatic cancer screenings for people with hereditary predispositions are a must but are not adequate (nor are they for the rest of us). Even if found early survival rates are poor. Same with ovarian cancer. It can certainly be detected but sometimes too late for a cure. Not so with colon cancer. We have a genuine lifesaving test with the colonoscopy.
When I turned 50 my doctor looked at his computer and exclaimed, “Oh, I see it’s time for your first colonoscopy!” It was all I could do to not jump off the table and run screaming from the examining room. Instead, I said, “Oh, sure, okay. Fine. I’ll check my calendar and get back to you.” I lied.
I rarely go to the doctor except for routine screenings because I’m a healthy person. Each year after that particular visit he urged me to make the colonoscopy appointment and each year I lied. As the years went by (twelve of them) he began pointing out the value of the test. Not only did he become more persistent but also a colonoscopy craze was developing throughout the country and on TV. Everyone was having them and we could even watch them performed on the evening news. I halfway began to think I might be invited to a colonoscopy party like a Tupperware party or a Botox party. No polyps, win a prize.
I argued with my doctor that I didn’t believe I was a candidate for such an invasive procedure. I’ve been a vegetarian for many years, eat a healthy diet, exercise, and I don’t have any nasty addiction habits. Other than chocolate binging. But he pointed out that though that was admirable I could not be sure that my gene pool provided me with protection from that particular affliction. Not only that, he explained, what about the environment? Did I live in a bubble? What about the food I purchased? Did it contain anything that may contribute to colon cancer? Each time I visited he provided more evidence that though I was practically a saint in my lifestyle choices I was still living in the world and no one knows for sure what exactly happens in the colon without a little peek.
At 62 I finally gave in. I must confess it was for monetary purposes and not because I was brave. I was about to retire and wanted the procedure done on my company insurance so I set the appointment. I don’t really know why it took me so long but I truly did not feel I was a candidate for colon cancer. I clung tightly to my belief in a pristine diet.
I had four polyps. (But read on because that’s “good.”)
The Bad: “Cleansing” The Digestive Tract (Bad and ugly.)
Prior to a colonoscopy there are a variety of methods used to cleanse the digestive tract so that the doctor’s camera can see anything of a suspicious nature lurking in the feces-free colon. None of the cleansing procedures are pleasant. My health care provider gave me a diet and two enemas to be used over a three- and two-day period. The diet was easy and in fact I lost six pounds in three days. The day before the screening I used the first enema bottle. The only word to describe what happened shortly thereafter is “explosion.” On the morning of the colonoscopy I had to use the final enema and by that time I could barely walk. Let me put this as delicately as possible: We could light a BBQ pit with the flames shooting out of my butt after two days of cleansing. When I arrived at the hospital I told the nurse immediately because I was sure they would have to cancel the appointment and rush me to the emergency room for anus surgery. Perhaps anus replacement. They did not.
The colonoscopy appointment is handled very much like a surgical procedure. I was given a gown and led to a bed where they set up an I.V. that would drip Valium to relax me. Some colonoscopy providers knock patients out. Mine just relaxed me. I must have mentioned my burning and inflamed anus about twenty times when finally a nurse took a peek. She was alarmed and ran to get the doctor. He took a look and said, “Oh, yeah. Whew!” I was ready to hop out of bed and head home but he informed me that he sees it a lot and he told me to buy some Preparation H on my way home and it would be fine in a couple of days. I was speechless. I couldn’t believe he was going through with the procedure with my butt on fire but indeed he did.
By this time the nurses were wheeling me into the small operating room and I noticed a team standing by. I didn’t expect an audience. I was surprised that this was such a big deal because the news reports all made it sound like it was no worse than getting a filling at the dentist’s office. Everyone was quite peppy and they started moving me around and before I knew it I was on my side facing a small TV. A color TV. The doctor explained what he was going to do and at this point I didn’t care about the colonoscopy, I was only worried my anus flames might ignite the operating room. At this point I realized I didn’t feel the Valium at all so I mentioned that and I think someone may have cranked it up. (I didn’t feel the Valium until I returned to my car with my son after the colonoscopy. He was my driver. The procedure cannot be done without a driver because of the sedation, even though I was not sedated until I got back in the car after the procedure.)
The Ugly: Discovering Four Polyps (Ugly but good.)
The doctor said (and I’m not kidding) “here we go” and off he went. I felt nothing. I was fascinated with viewing a part of my body I never thought I’d see and I watched the entire process. It was amazing and it did not hurt at all. Not even the aforementioned inflammation problem. At times I felt a teeny bit of pressure but it was absolutely nothing. As we marched along through my colon he informed me he found a polyp. I could see it too so he removed it in a little flurry of cutting and I think some air or something to remove blood and liquid and then he continued on his journey with his little camera. He complimented me on my colon cleansing effort because he could see clearly without any flotsam and jetsam* getting in the way. The procedure was painless. Soon he found another. He did the same thing with this polyp and before I knew it we were moving on. When we rounded a corner I saw the third polyp and shouted in an exuberant voice as though I had won the lottery, “Oh, there’s another one!” Everyone laughed.
Not long after that the final polyp was destroyed and the rest of the trip was polyp free. Soon the camera was reversing and the procedure was over. I couldn’t believe I had been so worried about this procedure because it truly was a big nothing. And the fact they found those four nasty little potential cancer-producing polyps was outstanding. A few days later I received a letter telling me my polyps were benign but because they found them I would be on schedule for colonoscopies every five years and that my children should have colonoscopies at age forty. That was it. I broke my big toe once and including childbirth, breaking the toe was the worst physical pain I have ever experienced. With the toe being a pain level ten the colonoscopy was a zero. No pain at all. None. (Childbirth was a nine.)
My son and I walked to the car and I felt absolutely normal. We drove to the drug store where I planned to buy a gallon of Preparation H and when we parked my son discovered I had passed out. Must have been that extra crank of Valium that didn’t work when I asked for it. My son got my beloved tubes and woke me up when we got home. I went directly to bed (after slathering on one entire tube of Prep H) and slept for two hours. When I got up I was starving so we went out to eat dinner. I chose a light meal for obvious reasons. I was not going to have a spicy meal with the burning condition of my waste removal apparatus. I felt absolutely rested and fine and with the contents of another tube of Preparation H placed where it would do its magic before bed, I had no pain. I was worried about the inevitable first bowel movement given the inflammation but since my digestive tract had been purged of food for the procedure the amount I had for dinner and other very light meals did not make it through my system for two days and by that time my red hot rear was healed. Remember: the anus inflammation and discomfort was from the cleansing and not the procedure. Just want to make that clear. I’m getting different cleansing materials the next time.
I don’t believe this posting will convince anyone to get a colonoscopy if they feel like I did originally. I was wrong. It may have saved my life, and more importantly, it may save my children’s lives, and it was no worse or no better than a Pap smear. Any time someone is slipping tools or hands inside our bodies it’s going to be weird and there’s a certain amount of dignity lost. But I prefer living to loss of dignity. I have two years to go before my next procedure. This time I’m going to request a different enema and more Valium and will purchase a dozen tubes of Prep H beforehand just in case. Other than that, I’m good to go—again and again and again. The more times I have the procedure the more years I live to have it again. At least as far as colon cancer is concerned. Our bodies are ticking time bombs so we must be brave and have screenings whenever recommended by our doctors for all parts of our bodies. Even though they can be a pain in the butt.
*the remains of a shipwreck still floating in water
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