I had been putting it off. You name the excuse: too busy, I feel fine, no symptoms, too uncomfortable to discuss, and on and on.
I refer to that dreaded procedure that medical professionals strongly urge all of us, once we hit age 50, to undergo: a colonoscopy.
Again, I was stalling. It takes a lot to get me to see a doctor for any reason, but when someone younger than me bit the proverbial bullet and underwent the procedure — and had three polyps removed — it was the final push to get the ball rolling and schedule a consultation.
There was a momentary temptation to consider the easier way and try Cologuard, the test kit with which you do your thing and then send your sample to be examined for indications of cancer or even advanced polyps, which can develop into cancer. But my family practitioner pointed out that the testing is still only about 80-85% effective — a chance she doesn’t think is worth taking — while also noting that a positive test would mean colonoscopic surgery in any case.
It should be noted that any form of colon testing is better than ignoring the issue altogether. If you feel that fecal testing or a non-invasive imaging technique is best for you, by all means, take that route.
For my part, I felt the most thorough approach was to go in and get it over with. Direct imaging with a tiny camera allows the doctor to inspect the entire length of the colon, and any polyp discovered is removed right then and there.
Even in the case of polyp removal there is little to no discomfort afterwards and the patient walks out of the hospital shortly after the procedure.
Early detection is the key. According to Cancer Services Program of Allegany and Cattaraugus Counties, removal of early stage polyps can literally nip colon cancer in the bud, while detection even of early-stage cancerous polyps greatly improves the patient’s chances for a positive treatment outcome.
In New York state alone, around 3,500 die each year from colorectal cancer, while the National Cancer Institute reports nearly 50,000 people in the United States die each year as a result of the disease. Only lung cancer kills more.
So there I was, the day before the procedure, limiting myself to a liquid diet (a sore trial for me at any time). At the appointed hour, I popped little laxative pills and mixed a brew of Gatorades and some sort of bowel-clearing substance to get things going. I watched TV, keeping a clear path to the bathroom.
To be honest, the “prep work” the day and night before the procedure was the hardest and most unpleasant part of the whole experience. But when my system settled down enough for me to go to bed, I slept well and awoke simply feeling, well, purged.
My wife drove me to the hospital. A nurse took my vitals, asked a few health-related questions and, behind a curtain, told me to take off my clothes, get into a hospital gown and settle into a hospital bed.
An IV was administered, an anesthesiologist and then the actual surgeon looked in on me, and I waited my turn.
I was wheeled into surgery, put into place and one of those clear oxygen tubes was put in my nose. To the tube was affixed a slim canister to deliver the anesthesia and … that’s all I remember.
I woke up in the recovery area about a half-hour later, with a nurse asking how I was doing. While a little groggy, I could feel the effects of the anesthesia quickly wearing away. I felt no discomfort — and I was hungry.
The doc came to tell me that all looked well — no polyps.
About an hour later I walked out of the hospital, none the worse for wear. I took the day off per doctor’s orders, and my wife drove me home, but I felt like I could have worked the rest of the day.
Despite the good outcome, I really waited too long to check off an important health task for all of us when we turn 50, even as data indicates that younger and younger Americans are being diagnosed with colorectal cancer.
It’s a hassle, it’s uncomfortable, it’s intimidating, but, from my overall experience, it really wasn’t that bad.
And the peace of mind that comes from knowing that an important aspect of my health is still ship-shape certainly made it all worth it.
(Jim Eckstrom is executive editor of the Olean Times Herald and Bradford Publishing Co. His email is email@example.com.)