It’s one of those rights of passage like your first date, your first car or living on your own for the first time. It’s the colonoscopy. It’s one of those things you’re supposed to get when you turn 50. It has a bad reputation because of the taboo section of the body it explores but it really is something you should have done if you’ve reached that golden age when you can join AARP.
I scheduled mine after a physical last year and had it done this morning. In August my new GP reminded me I should have one with a bizarrely cheery voice telling me that you can have colon cancer without having any symptoms. Like that was supposed to encourage me to have the procedure not scare me and make me want to run and hide and never have one done because I might get bad news.
Colon cancer is a real threat. According to Oncolink, this fountain of cancer truth, colon cancer is the third most common cancer in the western world with an estimated 93,090 new diagnoses last year and 49,700 related deaths in the U.S. The colon is the longest part of the large intestine which is the last stop on the digestive railroad. After that the waste gets pushed out the door into the rectum. Colon cancer occurs in the wall of the colon, first as a pre-cancerous polyp which then grows and becomes malignant.
During a colonoscopy an endoscope is inserted into the anus, through the rectum to explore the magical world of the colon. If found and small enough the device can remove polyps which can be biopsied to determine if they’ve become the Big C.
This is normally fairly congested territory littered with poop and waste that is in the process of becoming poop. The biggest downside of the colonoscopy is the preparation. You can basically just eat Jell-O and drink clear liquids for 24 hours prior to the procedure. Then, in my case I got to drink 12 ozs. of one of the more fowl medicines I’ve ever had and chased it with water. Then I had to wait for it to work, but not for very long.
My normally roller coaster twist and turn intestines became a flume ride. The meds turned on the taps and water started flowing through. Lots of it. Flushed me out. Completely in about 12 hours. My poop and pre-poop were washed away. Again and again. At all hours of the night and early morning. I lost nearly five pounds from the morning starting the day of Jell-O eating until this morning. When getting a colonoscopy plan on being hungry, being sleep deprived and riding the porcelain bus for a long time.
After that the procedure is a breeze thanks to the miracle (and it truly is a miracle) of anesthesia. I went to my friendly nearby endoscopy center and was knocked out cold then the endoscope explored about five feet of where the sun don’t shine.
I came fairly close to being killed by cancer about 15 years ago. My brother died of cancer ten years ago. When I have any kind of test, procedure or exam that may somehow detect cancer I’m pretty close to being a basket case. I put myself into full worry mode at least a couple days in advance. I imagine how I’ll get the bad news, what my new tumors may look like, how awful and ultimately fruitless treatment will be then I focus on my long, agonizing, painful death.
So I was pretty wound up (at least internally) prior to the colonoscopy. We got to the office early and I started reading through Sports Illustrated magazines until I read the full page ad by some foundation warning readers about how common and deadly colon cancer is. I tried to focus my internal mantra of “No polyps. No cancer,” over and over again.
When the anesthesia started I wondered how I’ll be told I have cancer and how long it will take to get that news after the procedure. I imagined I had a colon that was a forest of polyps, filled with small polyp pine trees and giant polyp sequoias, a veritable playground of colon cancer.
I woke up to learn that there were no polyps and no cancer. The upside of making yourself crazy with anticipation of really horrible news is that good news is so much sweeter when you don’t expect it. Assuming all goes well I’ll have to wait seven years until my next colonoscopy (assuming we’ll still be doing them in 2023).
Colonoscopies are not to be feared. Like many cancers if colon cancer is found at an early stage your chances of a cure are much better. The procedure is an opportunity to possibly prevent cancer from taking your life. If you’re that certain age get one. Perhaps, like me, the only thing you have to fear is fear itself.