Friday, April 29, 2011

Me and my colon

When you write a blog, you often straddle a fine line between coming up with things that are interesting and telling people too much. This time, I know, right off the bat, that I'm erring on the side of the latter, and I apologize in advance. But I really hope you keep reading.

On my mom's side -- and even, to some degree, my dad's -- my family is a crazy-quilt of cancers. So when I started experiencing some vague new symptoms, my doctor insisted we check them out. Her preferred mode of investigation? To my chagrin, a colonoscopy.

That idea didn't thrill me. I had planned to start colon screenings at age 50, but I'm not there yet, so the possibility of having to go through something so scary-sounding hadn't been something I'd had to consider. I agreed with my doctor, though, that it was foolish not to try to get to the bottom (ha!) of some alarming things my body was doing.

I especially agreed after I -- as I tend to do -- turned myself loose on Internet medical sites. According to every site I Googled, my symptoms certainly pointed to stage IV colon cancer, and I had but weeks to live. I tend to be quite the cyberchondriac, so when the doctor's office scheduled my procedure for the very near future, I was terrified but relieved.

Friends who already had experienced colonoscopies had told me that at the bowel prep a patient must undergo the day before the procedure is far worse than the procedure itself, and they were right. For advice about this part of the process, I leaned hard on Annette, a co-worker who is well-versed in such issues, primarily due to the tragic loss of her much-loved brother to colon cancer months ago.

Annette has turned her grief into vocal advocacy for colon-cancer screenings, and she shared with me her bag of tricks. I won't tell you I can't wait to drink another gallon of salty sludge, but Annette's helpful hints made the whole thing slightly more palatable. (And she and another co-worker, Patti, even sent me off with a bang by having me drink my first of 16 glasses before I left work, and cheering me on as I gulped.)

The rest of the night was challenging, but I also tend to be a huge wuss when it comes to dealing with an upset stomach. So suffice it to say I got through it, and you will, too. I even was able to eke out a great night's sleep, then wake to watch much of the Royal Wedding. A win-win, indeed.

This morning, Kevin and I arrived at the office of Dr. Charles Larson, a man I recognized from the photo his staff had sent me (inexplicably, on a bookmark-type thing) in a "welcome to our office!" packet. I was happy that he shares a first name with my late father, but disconcerted that he looks a whole lot like the individual who fired me from a job long ago (and was fired himself months later; ha!).

I needn't have worried, though: Counting even my children's former pediatricians, I had never encountered such a happy, jolly, laid-back guy. His genuine manner and reassuring tone told me I was in good hands (and, I also hoped, steady ones).

The nurses asked me some questions; then I changed into a gown and was covered with the most heavenly, thick, warm blankets. Another nurse started an IV, and I was wheeled into the "procedure room." Something wonderful began to flow into my right arm through the IV, and I started laughing at my own jokes. Dr. Larson walked in and laughed with me, and the next thing I knew, Kevin was sitting next to me, telling me it was time to get dressed.

Yes, that's right. I remember nothing about my colonoscopy. It didn't hurt; I didn't feel pressure, see blood, or throw up. Unfortunately, I also don't recall a thing Dr. Larson told me, but Kevin does; and thankfully, I also was provided with a written report of the findings.

The result: Despite the many Internet warnings to the contrary, I don't have colon cancer. Not even close. Like millions of other people, I have a pretty benign issue that was fairly easily explained and resolved. I'll return in three years to make sure all remains well.

In some ways, life is a crap shoot (no pun intended). Sometimes the healthiest people are struck down by the least likely diseases; other times, heart attacks fell marathon runners. But it's also becomingly increasingly the case that medical science can predict and prevent some cancers that remain among the deadliest.

And colon cancer is one of them: It's the third-most-common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, 101,700 new cases of colon cancer and 39,510 new cases of rectal cancer will be diagnosed this year. But did you know that if you're diagnosed with a stage 0 or 1 colon cancer -- which can be indicated early by a tiny polyp, as many of us have -- your survival rate is believed to lie somewhere between 95 percent and 100 percent?

I was frightened to undergo a colonoscopy -- not because of the organ involved, as I'm not the least bit prudish about those things -- but because I was terrified to face the possibility that something might really be wrong. Thanks to people like Annette, I was able to push it aside and determine that knowing was better than not knowing, and that I liked those early-diagnosis odds just fine.

And seriously: I'm no stranger to medical procedures, and this one was, hands-down, the easiest I've ever experienced.

So I'm lounging on the couch tonight, watching a Royal Wedding recap and picking at some snacks here and there. My stomach is a little sore, but that's nothing compared to the sense of gratitude I feel -- not only that I'm all right, but that perhaps someone who happens to be reading this and who has been experiencing a little pain or a little bleeding won't be afraid to visit the doctor.

Bottom line (again, no pun intended): If you know me, you know what a drama-queen weenie I am. If I can do it, you can do it. And, friends -- you will love those drugs.


  1. Glad to hear all is well! Also, "cyberchondriac" is my new favorite term.

  2. In case anyone happens to be reading this so far after the fact, we finally solved the real issue (a year later) that had led to the colonoscopy. It was a gallbladder that was so diseased it was necrotic. If you're having vague symptoms, don't stop until the problem is resolved!