I realize that this topic easily could (and likely will) stray into “TMI” territory. But it’s sufficiently important, to all of you, to justify several quick — and hopefully not too graphic — paragraphs.
On Friday, I had an annual (first annual, but annual nonetheless) physical in Pittsburgh. It was comprehensive. (Yes, comprehensive.) Early in the process, the doctor told me that my fecal occult test had come back positive, which meant that microscopic amounts of blood were found in one or more of the stool samples I smeared onto a card in early June.
I’m 46, and my sister had a benign polyp in her early 40s. And since some benign polyps can develop over time into colon cancer, I had received from time to time a gentle nudge to have a colonoscopy before the standard age of 50.
I resisted. Fearful of complications (albeit rare) and generally disinclined to have anything inserted in that area, I ultimately decided to have a yearly fecal occult test, accepting the fact that I’d bite the bullet and ride the six-foot snake if the card came back positive before my 50th birthday.
The sudden knowledge that I’d now have to submit to the procedure coupled with fear that my stubbornness may have resulted in a missed opportunity to remove any polyps before they became cancerous caused me to nearly prep my bowels for the exam on the spot, in the doctor’s office. With the lockout hopefully ending soon and a beach trip coming up and other things in July that I need to do, I asked for the earliest possible date to have the dreaded ‘scoping performed.
By the end of the day, the assman’s office called and told me that I had two options: today or July 19. I picked today without hesitation, even though I knew it meant I’d spend the next three days repeatedly Googling topics like “fecal occult false positives” and “colonoscopy risks” and “colon cancer symptoms” and “colon cancer treatment” — and that I’d spend Monday eating nothing while also taking medications intended to eradicate everything from my system. (But fortunately not while flying from Texas to New Jersey.)
The fact that less than 10 percent of the people who generate a positive fecal occult test have colon cancer provided little comfort, since everyone in that less than 10 percent surely believed that the numbers were in their favor before they got the very bad news. Still, it’s better to hear the bad news as soon as possible, especially with colon cancer, which has a survival rate hinging largely on how early it is found.
So I did it. And the whole thing wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. The prep consisted of taking a small pill at noon on Monday, followed by one eight-ounce glass every 10 minutes (10 glasses in all) of a slightly syrupy but palatable liquid that induced for the remainder of the night a process that at times simulated the placement of a thumb over a garden hose.
Early this morning, Mrs. PFT and I made the trek back to Pittsburgh. (You can’t drive home after the procedure, because you are sedated for it.) The process went smoothly, there were no polyps or tumors found, and I’m not nearly as loopy after the fact as I thought I’d be (I slept all the way home, but for a detour to Cracker Barrel, where I more than made up for 40 food-free hours). I also now have the best gift I could have gotten — peace of mind.
Dr. Mehmet Oz recently explained in a lengthy article for Time magazine his own experience with a colon cancer scare. “[M]y colonoscopy wasn’t entirely about me,” he concluded. “It was about my wife and our children. It’s about our someday grandchildren. It’s about my childhood friends whose lives remain closely intertwined with mine. It’s about my colleagues and patients at the hospital who teach me as I learn from them. I need to be there for all these people I know and care about. I need to show up in my own life. And you need to show up in yours. Sometimes that requires courage — the courage to undergo a colonoscopy or Pap smear or mammogram or chest X-ray. It’s not easy, but it could save your life.”
I’m now a firm believer in that concept. I wish I could have come to that conclusion without having to spend four days worrying that my past refusal to submit to a procedure that was surprisingly easy and routine possibly had forfeited my chance to avoid getting colon cancer. And I’ve shared this experience in the hopes that at least one of you who otherwise wouldn’t luck into an all-clear for cancer later will get the screening done now, while there’s time to make a difference in your life, and in the lives of those who depend on you.