ANN BAILEY: A vital test for colon cancer is not as unpleasant as you think"For the next three years, I made excuses for not getting one done. But the real reason I didn’t have a colonoscopy was I knew it was an unpleasant test."
By: Ann Bailey, Grand Forks Herald
Most everybody knows that March is the month of St. Patrick’s Day. Less known, but arguably more important, is that March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month.
Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States when men and women are considered separately, and the risk of developing it is about one in 20, according to the American Cancer Society website. I, like many people, know someone who has died from it. This year, about 50,830 people are expected to lose their lives to colorectal cancer.
That death rate is lower than it used to be. The rate has been dropping for more than 20 years, according to the American Cancer Society. Likely reasons for that include screening that finds polyps which are removed before they can develop into cancer and early detection of colorectal cancer. Meanwhile, treatment of colorectal cancers has improved, and there now are more than 1 million survivors in the U.S., the American Cancer Society reported.
The organization recommends most people begin to have screenings for colon cancer at age 50. Those with a family history of colon cancer or other risk factors should talk with their doctors about getting screened earlier.
There are several tests for detecting colon cancer:
• Colonoscopy: A lighted tube with a small camera on the end is used to examine the length of the colon and rectum. If polyps are found, they can be removed during the test.
• Flexible sigmoidoscopy: This procedure is similar to the colonoscopy, but examines only part of the colon and rectum. If polyps are found they may be removed during the test or they may have to be removed later.
• Double-contrast barium enema: If suspicious areas are seen on this type ofX-ray, a follow-up colonoscopy will be needed.
• CT colonoscopy: A scan of the colon and rectum, which scan produces detailed cross imagesm, so the physician can look for polyps or cancer. A follow-up colonoscopy will be needed if suspicious areas are found.
• Fecal occult blood test and fecal immunochemical test: Used to detect small amounts of blood in stool or the presence of polyps or cancer.
When I turned 50, my physician recommended I have a colonoscopy.
For the next three years, I made excuses for not getting one done. For the first two years, I told myself I had already missed a lot of work to stay home with my daughter, Ellen, who had leukemia. The next year, I reasoned that nobody in my family had colon cancer, so I probably didn’t need to be screened. But the real reason I didn’t have a colonoscopy was I knew it was an unpleasant test.
I witnessed family members preparing for the procedure by fasting and then drinking a solution that “cleans out” your colon. And I wanted to avoid it. Excuses aside, my conscience was nagging me. I knew the test, no matter how unpleasant, couldn’t rival getting colon cancer.
When my physician brought up the subject of a colonoscopy again at my annual exam last fall, I said I would schedule one and I kept my word. I made my appointment for the Friday after Christmas. I chose that day because I was on vacation that week and would be at home and near a bathroom. (I’d heard that being in close proximity to a bathroom was of utmost importance.)
A few days before the procedure, I got a prescription for a powder, cleverly named “Go Lytely,” that I was supposed to mix with water. I also received a call from someone at Altru Endoscopy Center. She explained the procedure, answered questions and told me I would need to have someone drive me home after the test.
The day before the colonoscopy, I had a breakfast of cereal and juice and then fasted for the remainder of the day, as I’d been instructed. Although fasting is hard for me, I was glad to do it because after years of putting it off, I wanted to get it the procedure over with.
At 5 p.m., I started drinking the Golytely solution that I had earlier mixed and refrigerated. During the next several hours, I gulped down a 12-ounce glass of it every 30 minutes until I’d finished all 128 ounces.
The solution worked as it should. In anticipation, I’d camped on the living room sofa, not far from our downstairs bathroom. It was a wise decision because I made a lot of quick trips to my destination.
After I finished the solution, I went to bed and slept fairly well. When I woke up the next morning, I congratulated myself for making the decision to drink all of the Golytely the night before. My physician had given me the option of leaving a few glasses to drink in the morning, but I thought it was better to get it over with the night before. Facing a new day with more Golytely would have been much more difficult for me than just getting up and going to the procedure.
Inside the center, a receptionist told me a nurse would get me in a few minutes. When she arrived, I was ushered into a room with several beds divided by curtains. I was given a gown, and then the nurse took my blood pressure, hooked me up to an IV and asked me several questions, including whether I had drank all of the solution and how long I had fasted. Then, she covered me with a warm blanket and I dozed until a second nurse woke me up and wheeled into the procedure room.
The nurse introduced me to the doctor, who would be doing the procedure. She explained she would give me a conscious sedation and told me it worked on some people quickly and others, more slowly.
That was the last thing I remembered. When I woke up about 15 minutes later, I was in the recovery room and another nurse told me the doctor had talked to me and told me the procedure had gone well and that I would be mailed the official results. It was news to me that the doctor had spoken to me. I had no recollection of it or of the procedure.
I was in the recovery room until the nurse there was sure I’d passed air and eaten some toast and then I got dressed and went to the waiting room. My husband was there to pick me up. We went to a local restaurant where I ordered pasta and after we ate, we headed home where I rested for the remainder of the day.
My results from the colonoscopy were positive: no polyps and no signs of cancer. Even though that’s what I had anticipated, I was relieved that it was official. Because there is no family history of colonoscopy, I won’t have to have the procedure for another 10 years.
I can’t say that’s a day I look forward to. But I know early detection is better than the alternative so, God willing, I’ll make another appointment when I’m 64.
Reach Bailey at email@example.com.