Colonoscopy done, check. I passed (pun intended) with flying colors. The doctor removed one very small polyp, and it was benign.
I jumped right to the ending because I’m not attempting to be dramatic. The point of this post is to describe the process I experienced, as it may help others who have not done it to understand what it’s like. In truth, this journey for me started 18 years ago…
My dad passed away in November 1995 as a result of colon cancer which had already spread greatly and was inoperable. The most difficult aspect of his death was how quickly it happened: he lived only a couple of months after finding out his disease was terminal. He said he felt cheated out of enjoying his retirement years for which he had labored; he quit working at age 65 and was gone by age 67.
I could write about the whole range of thoughts and emotions that accompany the loss of a loved one — his personality, our relationship, what he meant to me as a father, his life and accomplishments, and my sense of loss — but I am choosing to save that for a separate post. The thing that bothers me about my dad’s demise is that it was preventable. Apparently, from what I can tell (he still lived in Columbus, Ohio, and I had moved to California ten years before), he rarely went to see his doctor. On top of that, he did not partake in the healthiest of diets, nor did he get a lot of exercise. In short, he did not take care of his health.
I have written about it before, and it bears repeating: I believe in being proactive about my health. No one will take care of it for me. The doctors and nurses can only help if I ask for help.
Where my health is concerned, the loudest message I received from my dad is that I am in the high-risk group for colon cancer and cancer in general. Raising the stakes is the fact that I have already had thyroid cancer; therefore, I’m more at risk for other types. That’s why this particular journey began 18 years ago. I knew from that time onward that having a colonoscopy was not only wise, it was practically unavoidable.
For some inexplicable reason, I focused on things I had read and heard suggesting that age 50 was my target for a colonoscopy. In the initial consultation, the doctor explained that I should have done it when I was 40. My bad; not proactive enough, I guess. In retrospect, knowing that all is fine, I saved myself some trouble. Nevertheless, if you are like me and in a high-risk group, it’s best not to wait.
I began mentally preparing for the procedure at least a year before going through it. I had heard anecdotal accounts from family members. John, my oldest brother, was a good sounding board for me; he had it done a few years ago. Cindy, his wife, also advised me. Funny, one bit of useful-sounding advice was to mix the bowel prep medicine with alchohol to make it taste better! The doctors and nurses will not readily admit that alcohol is OK beforehand (and the instructions with my kit expressly forbid it), but my sister-in-law swore a nurse told her otherwise. In the end, so to speak, I did not use alcohol.
Talking and hearing about it may have done more harm than good. I became quite concerned about the fasting aspect — a liquid diet is prescribed for the whole day before the procedure. I never miss a meal! I love eating just about whatever I want (within reason). I get stomach aches and headaches when I don’t eat enough. This was going to be a mental as well as physical challenge. As for the medicine, I had been told frequently that it’s ghastly.
In the days leading up to the procedure, I made one concession: in an effort to slow my metabolism (not sure there is any science behind my thinking), I cut back on my running and cycling, which tend to make me continually and ravagingly hungry. However, I did not really eat less to “shrink my stomach”. I basically pigged out so that I could enjoy food before my “last meal”. I was happy!
I purposefully scheduled the procedure for December 31st. As unpleasant as the whole thing was sure to be, I wanted to get it out of the way, not start off a new year on a down note. I rarely get excited about New Year’s Eve anyway, and I do not typically stay up late or go out, so it was no problem to think about recovery time the rest of the day. I figured I would lay low.
And lay low I did. For the entire day beforehand, which I had taken as a vacation day, I simply ate my clear chicken, vegetable and beef broths and lemon jello and drank some mango fruit juice, and in between those meager servings I watched videos and began reading Gods Generals by Jeff Shaara. I do know how to stay and be quiet when necessary.
Around 4:30 p.m. I steeled myself, took some deep breaths, and sniffed the first 6-ounce dose of medicine mixed with 10 ounces of water, as prescribed. Huh. Surprisingly, although it had a somewhat medicinal aroma and strange clear but wavy appearance (my brother says that is due to its highly ionic nature, but I haven’t studied it), the stuff really did not seem very scary. I held my nose at first, then realized my upper hand was too much in the way, I grew some balls and just chugged it down. No problem. Really. What is all the fuss, anyway? Maybe they have improved this stuff over time, or maybe I lucked out in some way, but it does not taste horrible. It has very little flavor of any kind; if anything, it tastes sort of like I imagine soda water tastes, because I do not typically drink soda water.
The only other thing is, within the next hour, the instructions say to drink 32 more ounces of water. I timed it. Half an hour after the dose, I drank 16 ounces, and then another half an hour after that, 16 more. That is way more water than most people usually drink in an hour, but there you have it. Not really very difficult.
OK. Then. You probably know what comes next. The medicine is a powerful laxative. About 5 to 6 hours of frequent trips to the toilet are what comes next. Again, a very good idea to lay low all day and just hang out. Not pleasant, but not difficult.
From about 3 p.m. the previous afternoon through the night, I had a constant, low-grade headache. Otherwise, I felt fine.
Well. Then. The second dose was prescribed for 2 a.m., with the additional water by 3 a.m. I set an alarm, but woke up on my own a few minutes before 2 a.m. I have a great internal body clock; it’s a weird talent that I can program myself to wake up at a certain time. At any rate, what I learned is that although it is certainly not like pulling an all-nighter studying or some nasty chore like that, drinking all that water was more difficult in the middle of the night. It’s simply not natural. I never had a gag reflex or even close to it, but I literally had to suck it up and force the water down.
I was due to wake up at 6 a.m. for the 7 a.m. arrival time at the doctor’s office. Amazingly, despite the frequent trips to the water closet, I was able to get some sleep, even more than a half an hour at a time more than once. Again, I woke up before my alarm. No breakfast allowed, of course. All night long, I programmed my brain and told myself I was NOT hungry. It worked. Also, I was quite surprised that my headache had disappeared when I got out of bed.
Karen drove and dropped me off at the doctor’s office. The entire staff — nurses, anesthesiologist, and doctor, were extremely kind and friendly. I completed some routine paperwork, was led into a prep room, changed into one of those funny but quite comfy (warm!) robes, climbed onto the bed, and waited just a few minutes before it was all set to go. Had the IV put in, which doesn’t bother me at all, chatted a bit with the anesthesiologist, and then was wheeled into the procedure room. Asked the anesthesiologist if she would be asking me to do a count-down. She tricked me; she said some people count down, some don’t, and I waited for instructions, but within a few seconds I must have been out. She told me afterward that of course she had already started the sedative in the IV. Next thing I knew I was gently and rather pleasantly waking up in the recovery room as if from a nice nap. The sedative wears off very quickly, and I felt fine. I looked at the clock, and I was amazed that it was only 8:26. The procedure had taken only 15 minutes or so! Incredible that they can go in there and look around and even fix things so quickly.
The doctor came by and told me everything was good, just the one tiny polyp removed, and it was benign, etc. Then, he walked out, and it was all over except for a nurse letting me know I could get up and change into my clothes and leave whenever I felt ready. Karen came in, and we left.
It was all so amazingly easy, a piece of cake. Naturally, I was hungry, so I wanted to eat. Karen fixed me some scrambled eggs and pancakes, and the rest of New Year’s Day I sat around and watched a lot of shows on the LCD. I was drowsy at times, but moreso because it was a nice day off and I truly wanted to relax than because of any after-effects of the sedative.
I’m longer afraid of having a colonoscopy and will do it again in five years or so without trepidation. I’m so glad to have the peace of mind, knowing that part of my body is doing well.
If you in a high-risk group for colon cancer, or even if you’re not, and you are 50 or older, or maybe even just 40 or over, go get it done. It’s really not hard, and you may be very glad you did.