Can I be blunt? I mean really lay it out there. I'd like to talk about my colon. If that makes you uncomfortable, I understand. Just think how it makes me feel. It's MY colon we're talking about, not yours. And who knows, with social media these days, my colon will hopefully get thousands of LIKES on Facebook!
So let's talk about a subject that is a bit taboo for some or at least slightly uncomfortable for many. As toddlers, we spoke freely of peeing and pooping to the point of telling our potty tales to anyone who might listen (including guests at the dinner table if necessary). Then in elementary school, bodily functions became a focus of humor, at least as far as little boys go. Sometime during the teen years, we became a bit more self conscious, embarrassed to speak of anything related to our biology. Unfortunately, adulthood does not alter these (mis)perceptions and we continue through life making sure we keep "our private things private." That's all well and good, unless those private things can kill you.
As a physician that professes to practice holistic, preventative health care, I have been a bit of a hypocrite. I know the 2016 U.S. statistics for colorectal cancer according the American Cancer Society:
- 95,270 new cases of colon cancer
- 39,220 new cases of rectal cancer
- 49,190 expected deaths
I am also very aware of the fact that early detection of pre-cancerous polyps or stage I colon cancer can lead to remarkable treatment outcomes. As with many of us though, being informed of the facts does not always motivate us to take action. I procrastinated, knowing that the prep was pretty crappy (pun intended). So here's what got me motivated. I told you I was going to be blunt, so here it goes.
One Monday morning in early May, I went to the bathroom as usual. To my horror, the toilet paper was filled with bright red blood. Worse yet, the toilet was an eery shade of crimson as well. I can assure you, that finding will snap you right out of your morning doldrums. Knowing that bright red blood is usually not a common finding in serious conditions like colon cancer, I tried to relax. About an hour later, another trip to the bathroom revealed the same, a few more teaspoons of blood. Now I was a bit more concerned.
My mind started racing. "I should have known better. Why didn't I get that colonoscopy done four years ago when I turned fifty? Am I going to pay the ultimate price for my delay?" This went on for about fifteen minutes. "Now just relax," I finally said to myself, "No need to jump to crazy conclusions." My initial panic settled into a generalized anxiety. "Let's see how the day progresses," I thought, as if giving advice to a patient. Unfortunately things continued unchanged for the next few hours, but the bleeding did eventually stop around noon. To ease my mind a bit, I was able to get an appointment with an excellent gastroenterologist that afternoon through the recommendation of a good friend who specializes in Internal Medicine. They were wonderful and scheduled my colonoscopy that following week.
Although I was apprehensive about the findings, I was not worried. Bright red blood is usually indicative of a ruptured blood vessel rather than colon cancer. However, I knew I would not be at ease until the procedure was completed, curious to know if I may have tempted fate.
Here's why I feel it is vital for me to tell you of my experience. One of the challenges of having a colonoscopy is the 24 hour fast. The afternoon before my procedure, I had a lovely patient come to see me. As many of you know, my practice has a very personal feel. When you walk through my door, you become part of my family. That being said, when April asked how my day was going, I mentioned she may hear some rumblings in my stomach as I was in the midst of my pre-colonoscopy fast. Upon my disclosure, her face become quite serious as she expressed her sincere appreciation for my decision to go through the process.
"Let me tell you a story," she began, speaking in a very solemn tone. "Four years ago my father went in for a routine colonoscopy. The doctor said there were some abnormalities present and that he should return for another checkup in a year. He never went back. Earlier this year he started having problems going to the bathroom, noticing some bleeding as well. The results of his next colonoscopy would reveal stage IV colon cancer. My father now has a colostomy bag and his future is quite uncertain."
I thanked her for sharing and told her that regardless of my findings, I was going to spread the word. Colon cancer is one of the most preventable and treatable of all cancers. According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for stage I is approximately 92 percent. For stage IV, the rate drops to 11 percent. These survival numbers do not include people who have precancerous polyps removed prior to the disease even appearing, which also significantly improves longevity. They can be attended to immediately and monitored effectively before cancer ever rears it's ugly head. Left undetected or untreated, though, this disease is unrelenting as it drains the life from it's host.
After some of the best sleep I can remember, I was gently awakened by the nurse. Feeling like I had slept for days, I was still in a bit of an anesthesia stupor. Yet I can clearly recall the doctor telling me that all was well and he saw nothing suspicious in the least. I was told to return in 10 years for a follow-up and am counting on technological advances to make the process a bit less invasive by the year 2026.
So, if you are over the age of fifty or have a family history of colon cancer, make it a point to get checked. It may sound funny, but I feel I like I got a bit of a second chance. Fortunately for me, this experience was more like a bad dream. For people like April's father, however, that bad dream has become a living nightmare. Wake up while you still have time. This is one case when sleeping in may cost you your life.