Saturday, October 6, 2012

I'm not a stupid person, but you'll never believe that after reading this.

I have a friend who is a cancer survivor, and as she prepares every year to visit the hospital for the scan that will determine whether she's cancer-free, she journeys inward to a place she calls "Cancer Head."

"Cancer Head" is not a great place to be -- while she's there, she thinks about little but the "what ifs." What if, 10 years after she was first diagnosed, the cancer is back, and fiercer this time? What if she has to go through more chemo, more radiation, more time in the hospital, more time away from her kids? What if this time, she doesn't win?

I can relate. In fact, it's "Cancer Head" that caused me to delay a test that could very well have made the difference between a good outcome and a not-so-good one. My thought process was a ridiculous one, and I'm sharing the experience so anyone who might come across this won't be inclined to be nearly as stupid.

First, the back story: I had cancer once. But it was hardly cancer: It was in my thyroid, and the type of malignancy was the easiest kind to cure. A surgeon took out one side of my thyroid, and then he took the other side. I swallowed some radiation a few times and have annual follow-up care, but as far as cancer goes, I was a lottery winner.

That said, though, there's been a lot of cancer in my family; it took my mom when I was little, so as long as I can remember, I've been afraid of it. So "Cancer Head" has been a part of my reality, and I've always liked to think that I deal with it by being vigilant with tests and screenings and trying to avoid known carcinogens.

But apparently I wasn't doing a great job around the time I noticed the symptom that could have signaled something really bad. I had seen it before and had it checked out, and it turned out to be nothing serious. But it came back, and it was a whole lot worse, and I ignored it. Why? Because I was scared.

I'll spare you the gross details, but you can guess: The symptom involved something one does in the privacy of the restroom, and it's alarmingly difficult to miss. And it was happening daily. And I proceeded to ignore it until a few weeks ago, when, after my annual physical, my doctor called me. Not her nurse, but the doctor herself. And she said, "I ran a test, and it showed a lot of blood, and why didn't you tell me?"

And I proceeded to lie like a rug. "It must be a new thing. I've never seen it," I said.

Why did I lie to her? Because I was even more scared at that point -- scared my own stupidity, my own delay, had caused some real problems.

So she ordered another test, and it, too, was positive. Strongly positive, she said. So positive that we need to get you in for a colonoscopy right away.

OK, I said. And I made the appointment. And then I canceled it.

I know; this just keeps getting stupider. Because when you think about it, the outcome was going to be the outcome, and I already was absolutely certain I had cancer ... so what was there to lose? And I had had the same test a year before, for a different reason, and it turned out fine.

But this time, "Cancer Head" was prevailing, and I was sure I was dying. And the bottom line, no pun intended: I simply didn't want to know.

Eventually, though, my shred of remaining common sense eventually won out and I rescheduled the appointment, and this time I kept it.

I was terrified -- so terrified that I hyperventilated on the table before the doctor even entered the room. But the test was a piece of cake; I was out cold, and when I came to, he was showing me bright, shiny pictures and saying, "You're clean as a whistle." The cause, it seems, had been rather common and entirely benign.

So what did I learn? "Cancer Head" could have killed me. Colorectal cancer is no joke: It's estimated that in 2010, 1.23 million new cases were diagnosed, and the disease killed 608,000 people.

But this is also true: If you're screened regularly and any potential problem is found early, you likely won't die. Screening for colorectal cancer is so much more effective that screening for many other types, including cancer of the breast; so many other cancers have no available screening processes at all.

I wish I could be like my co-worker Gene, who undergoes a medical test, assumes the best and doesn't think a thing about it until his doctor calls with the result. The reality, though, is that I have "Cancer Head" -- but dealing with it, while no fun, is still so much better than avoiding the procedures that could keep me healthy.

If a symptom is worrying you, statistics are on your side: More people are healthy than ill. But don't take a chance. Put on your big-girl or big-boy panties -- or, in a case like this one, take them off! Ha! -- and simply have the test you need. If you seriously think you're already sick, please don't do what I did: Take initiative and fix it before it can kill you. It's really, truly just that simple.

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