A Boomer Ponders Mortality--and Colonoscopy
By Jerry Berger
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center staff
In the end, the anxiety is worse than the procedure. And knowing where you stand is better than not.
As most baby boomers, I viewed the colonoscopy right-of-passage with something less than wholehearted joy. Lucky enough to have no family history of colon cancer, I did what I often do best when it comes to my health care. I procrastinated.
But with the pleasant yet increasingly insistent annual reminders from my primary care doctor, I knew it was a matter of time before he would issue an edict: get it done or find another doctor. So, I set a date - six months down the road.
As the day got closer, the feet got colder. More time to brood and dwell. More time to come up with excuses. An early fall cold that would not go away was an object of annoyance and relief. Maybe it will be gone by then? Maybe it won't! In the end, the cold won out. I put it off another few months.
With the benefit of hindsight, I now know why.
Call it pop psychology, but I think it obviously stems in part from the fact men prefer to stay clear of doctors for as long as necessary. But there's another reason too.
Colonoscopy screens for potential cancers. From a much earlier age, women have a regular schedule of mammograms and Pap smears. They are more used to the process (although not immune from the dread).
Men, on the other hand, face prostate exams only as part of the boomer process. These screens amount to embarrassment and needle sticks. And there is considerable debate about the effectiveness of the blood test.
But colonoscopies are serious exams. Low residue diets. A 24-hour liquid fast. Yucky tasting liquids that make your body do unpleasant things you normally don't want to do.
Once I came to grips with the reality that I was facing a CANCER SCREENING, I developed the resolve to follow through. So I chugged the two bottles of lemon-lime flavored laxative (despite the warning from a friend I have actually had a Sprite since!) and reported for the screening.
It was a piece of cake (only one that you could eat later!)
I put myself in the hands of
Dr. Ram Chuttani, Director of Interventional Gastroenterology and Endoscopy at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who has done thousands of these exams. I remember very little (one brief conversation in the procedure room) thanks to the wonders of conscious sedation.
I headed home a couple of hours after the screening - complete with some color pictures of my colon and an explanation for some of the day-to-day issues I have faced on the digestive front. I was told I had nothing to be concerned about - but to call back a week later for the lab results of the two polyps plucked during the procedure.
And that is when the value of what I had done really hit home. The polyps were adenomas - nowhere near as menacing as the lay term attached to them: pre-cancerous.
As Dr. Chuttani explains: "Colon cancer is one of the most preventable cancers. In most cases there is a pre-cancerous condition, i.e. adenomatous polyp, and generally a long lag-time before it becomes a cancer. The removal of this polyp effectively prevents the development of colon cancer."
But at the same time, they were out, gone, unable to cause me any harm. Relief is a mild word.
Instead of the 10-year cycle for folks who have perfectly clean colons, I'm on a five-year schedule. I'm not going to run out and buy the laxative any time soon, but I also know there will be no dawdling when 2014 comes around.
Yeah, cancer screening is scary. But not as scary as disease itself. And getting rid of potential problems before they grow into full-scale trouble is the smartest thing a person can do.
Or, as the doctor says, "Colonoscopy in expert hands is extremely safe, and by removing pre-cancerous adenomatous polyps, effective in preventing the development of colon cancer in most cases. It is a shame that less than half the number of individuals that need a screening colonoscopy actually undergo the procedure."
Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
Posted March 2009