Thursday, November 13, 2008

If You Haven't Had One - Get One!

Eight years ago (about the time I turned 50) "she who must be obeyed" began to ask me when I intended to have my first colonoscopy. Remembering when she had her first one - a number of years earlier - and under more unpleasant conditions - I replied, "Just after I have my fingernails and toenails pulled out with a pair of pliers". She was not amused. "You have reached the age" she said, "when people are supposed to get checked", she informed me with that stern look that only she can give. This, and similar exchanges went on intermittently for the next four years. I held firm to my desire for personal dignity and an aversion to what I thought would be a most unpleasant experience.

"Listen!" I said. "If you think I'm going to volunteer for THAT, you've got another think coming! When my doctor tells me I have to get one, I'll have it done - but not a day sooner."

Well, that day came in late November, 2004, when in a weakened condition, I had consulted with my family physician. He informed me that my problem was due to a very low hemoglobin level. "We have to find out where you are losing blood" he said seriously, and promptly socked me into Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital for a series of tests. I had no idea I was losing blood. Not a clue.

They first scheduled an endoscopy. I didn't really like the sound of that, but it turned out not to be as bad as it sounded. It involved running a fiber optic camera down my throat and into my stomach looking for possible problems. The doctor explained that if nothing showed up on the endoscopy procedure, they would then go to a colonoscopy. Suffice it to say that I was praying for them to find a bleeding ulcer on the first test, but alas, the results were negative. So, failing to find anything on the "north to south" probe, to my dismay they prepared me for a "south to north" excursion the next day. That is where they hit the jackpot!

The colonoscopy procedure (which I slept through) revealed a large tumor in my colon. Through the fog of coming out of the anesthesia, I remember hearing the doctor tell my wife, "We will have to wait for the results of the biopsy, but I can tell you with a great degree of certainty this mass is most likely malignant. It must come out." He further advised that the mass had been growing there for two years or more. That, of course, was all that was needed to elicit the mother of all "I told you so's" from Linda! As most of my readers know, the mass was malignant, and the ensuing surgery revealed that the mass had escaped the wall of the colon and the cancer had spread throughout my liver and in many lymph nodes. The prognosis was dark. The resulting four years of surgeries, chemotherapy, CT and PET scans, and other medical procedures have cost a fortune and have been most unpleasant to endure. All of it, mostly unnecessary, had I undergone a simple colonoscopy at the age they advise. Had I not waited four years, this (and all the concern and grief of my family) could have all been avoided. Colon Cancer is one of the most curable of all malignancies, when it is discovered in the early stages.

I was a fool to wait.

The truth of the matter is, a colonoscopy is a safe, painless procedure which can save your life. Undignified? Yes, but anyone who has ever been a patient in a hospital knows, you check your dignity at the registration desk. One finds that the embarrassment doesn't matter if the procedure can save your life! The procedure itself is a piece of cake. The staff of the Endoscopy/Colonoscopy Suite at Our Lady of Bellefonte are friendly, highly skilled, courteous, and totally devoted to the patient's comfort. I have been through that suite several times now, and I can't say enough about their professionalism and kindness. The worst thing about a colonoscopy is not the procedure, but the preparation for it on the day preceding the procedure. While unpleasant, at least you can do the prep in the privacy and comfort of your own home.

The prep is all important, as the doctor needs to have a clean and empty colon to be able to proceed with the exam. A clear liquid diet is all one can have the day before the procedure, and then there is the stuff one has to drink, to clean out the test area. Apparently there are several formulas that are used for the prep, ranging from drinking a gallon jug of some kind of swill, to a little three ounce bottle, the contents of which are mixed with several ounces of some other clear liquid. My doctor told me to use the little bottle of Fleet Phospho-Soda (flavored or unflavored - my choice). Phospho-Soda. Sounds like some type of treat from the fountain at the pharmacy. Right? Not! This is the nastiest tasting stuff I have EVER put in my mouth. Like Jesus, I found myself praying, "Father if there be any other way, please let this cup pass from me", but to no avail.

Last year I had chosen the "Ginger Flavored" phospho-soda. Big mistake! This year I used my God given ability to reason, and chose the unflavored stuff. I figured I could mix it with Sprite to help it go down easier. Bigger mistake. Now the very thought of Sprite (which was formerly my favorite soft drink) turns my stomach. I don't know if I will ever be able to drink it again! I was instructed to drink one half of the "cocktail" at 8:00 AM and the second half at 4:00 PM. They were only small glasses of clear liquid but it took a major league effort to get them down - and keep them down. The only reason I didn't bring it right back up was the frightening thought that I would have to drink ANOTHER glass of it to replace the one I would lose. Regurgitation was not an option! Seriously, though, the resulting effects of the phospho-soda were not nearly as unpleasant to me as just drinking the stuff. I just had to stay close - and I mean CLOSE - to the bathroom all day.

With that experience behind me (no pun intended), Linda and I arrived at Bellefonte Hospital at 7:15 this morning for the procedure. The anesthesia was administered, and no sooner had I been brought into the scope lab and instructed to lie on my left side, I was out like a light. The next thing I knew, Linda was telling me it was over. The doctor came by to show us the photos (glossy autographed prints available for a reasonable price) and to advise us that he found, and removed, one small polyp near the area of my former surgery where the colon had been reconnected. He said it looked OK, but he sent it off to the lab for a biopsy. I'll see him next week for the results.

I was once a fellow who feared the thought of a colonoscopy. How foolish of me. Now I'm one of those annoying people who urge their friends and family members to have it done as soon as it is medically advisable. Don't put off something so simple, that could potentially save your life. If you won't do it for your own well being, do it for your family and those who love you. Take it from someone who has heard, "I told you so!"

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