July 14

Colonoscopy

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I almost can’t believe I’m writing these words, but in this one instance I (gulp) agree with Jane Brody.
Her column in Tuesday’s New York Times was spot on.
She had a colonoscopy recently, and was encouraging her readers to do the same.  I heartily agree.  Colonoscopy is one of those tests that is invaluable in the early detection of colon cancer, a type of cancer that can be easily treated in the early stages, but that turns deadly if left too long.

Though it commands far less attention than, say, cancers of the breast or prostate, colorectal cancer is the leading nonsmoking-related cancer killer of Americans. It is the third most common type of cancer and the second leading cause of cancer deaths. This year, the cancer society predicts, about 145,290 cases will be diagnosed and 56,290 people will die of it.

Both statistics represent needless deaths: this disease is largely preventable, and if diagnosed early, nearly always curable, often with surgery alone. Though there have been notable exceptions (Darryl Strawberry, for one), this cancer rarely occurs before age 50 in those without a family history. Over a lifetime, 1 person in 20 in the United States gets colorectal cancer; three-fourths have no known hereditary link.

But fewer than a third of Americans over 50 have ever had a colonoscopy, the test that can beat this cancer into the ground by finding the polyps that give rise to the disease.

I had a colonoscopy a few years back myself, and it was a breeze.  The worst part of the entire procedure is the prep, which at that time was dreadful.  I went the route of drinking the gallon of liquid that cruises through and cleans the GI tract before the colonoscopy.  It’s much worse than it sounds.  You wouldn’t think drinking a gallon of fluid over a few hours would be that tough a chore, but when the fluid sort of has the taste and consistency of cherry-flavored lighter fluid, it becomes a real drag.
In capable hands, there is nothing to the procedure.  I showed up, and within no time was all IV’d up and ready to go.  Most patients require a little sedation, but I wanted to watch on the big screen.  I tried to talk them out of the IV’s altogether, but they were insistent, “just in case.”  Just in case of what I didn’t want to ask.   The nurse gave me a little push of Valium to act as a muscle relaxant to make the procedure easier for the doctor doing it, but kept the dose low and laid off the other stuff entirely.
I watched as the scope advanced around all the twists and turns of my colon.  It was both fascinating and a little nerve wracking at the same time.  It was fascinating because I was peering into the deep, dark recesses of my own body in real time; it was nerve wracking because as the end of the scope wormed around each bend I was half expecting to see a giant cancer loom before me.  Fortunately, such was not the case, and I was given a clean bill of colonic health.
The procedure–even without the sedative–was entirely painless.  I didn’t feel a single moment of pain or even mild discomfort during the entire process.
Once you’ve had a colonoscopy, assuming nothing was found, you can rest assured that you won’t develop colon cancer any time soon.
If you’re over 50, if you’ve been diagnosed with polyps, or if you have a family history of colon cancer (or any kind of cancer), sign up for a colonoscopy.  According to Jane even the prep has improved since my experience.


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