My First Colonoscopy: It's all behind me now!

by Nancy Gonzalez, CFLE
Nancy Gonzalez, CFLE

When one turns 50, there are at least two events that usher in the decade. First, AARP will hit you up for membership. Then your doctor will begin to pester you about getting a colonoscopy.  

Quoting the American Gastroenterological Association, a colonoscopy is a procedure which allows the examination of the colon by use of a long, flexible, lighted tube called the colonoscope through which the doctor can view the entire colon and rectum for polyps or cancer and during the same exam remove pre-cancerous polyps. It is the test most gastroenterologists recommend as the single best screening exam for colorectal cancer. It is the only method that combines both screening and prevention (by removal of pre-cancerous polyps).  http://www.gastro.org/patient-center/digestive-conditions/colorectal-cancer .

My aunt died of colon cancer, so my doctor was relatively insistent that I get checked out. Here's the weird bit-I was absolutely terrified, and unnecessarily so. I've gone through some nasty medical stuff. I've had a C-Section. I've had a hysterectomy. I've had my gallbladder removed during which my pancreas was nudged so I developed pancreatitis, which is unbelievably painful-almost as bad as labor. Then, as a complication from the pancreatitis, fluids backed up into my stomach which I had to have drained on an emergency basis with no anesthesia-a radiologist worked by fluoroscope and inserted a tube through my abdominal wall into my stomach. There was no time to call an anesthesiologist. They didn't even give me a bullet to bite on. I share this just to demonstrate that I am not a coward.

The colonoscopy was a terrifying prospect, and the point of today's blog is that it shouldn't have been. It was no big deal. I'm probably not alone in my fear, which is unfortunate; there are likely many who are as fearful or more fearful than I and therefore many who are procrastinating about getting this test. Why?

I'm convinced that most of the problem is because few people are willing to talk about it. We women have come a long way with our pink ribbon campaigns and we talk about our mammograms. Men talk about prostate health openly, including men who are public figures such as John Kerry and Rudy Giuliani-both survivors. There are few who campaign for colon health.  It's a tragedy, because colon cancer is the third most common cancer. We just aren't comfortable talking about-let's say it-poop... and where it comes from. We are also, understandably, worried about pain. In my case, and in the case of everyone I have talked to who's had the procedure, they are wonderful about making one comfortable. Want proof?  You can bet that if the exam were traumatic, word would get out fast.

Katie Couric took on this cause. She lost her husband to colon cancer. He was 42. She made colon cancer screening her personal campaign. She did a very courageous thing-she had a colonoscopy and had it broadcast on TV.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15JsYSZIT-Q . The video was dignified and reassuring. I watched it before I went in, and it was enormously helpful. 

What was equally helpful, and this is just because of who I am, was laughing all the way to the event. I won't provide the links here in case there are readers who may be squeamish, but there are a couple of comedy routines about colonoscopies on YouTube that are hyperbolically hilarious. If you're like me, and love to laugh in the face of fear whenever possible, these might be just what the doctor ordered. In addition to Katie Couric's procedure, there are many other educational videos about colonoscopies on YouTube. To find any of these, type "colonoscopy" into the YouTube search engine.

Age 50 is the recommended age to begin screening, but there are many factors, such as family history, that may make an earlier screening necessary, so your mileage may vary. Talk to your doctor-and don't procrastinate like I almost did. I got a clean bill of health, and they don't need to see me again for five years. Do it!

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