This piece was published in the Pasadena Star News on November 16, 2003.
He waited until he had symptoms before he went to the doctor. My father, like many men, avoided physicians, diagnostic tests and regular medical check-ups. If he had had the screening examination for colon cancer, admittedly an unpleasant procedure, he would not have spent the last years of his life feeling sick and miserable.
I got my first colonoscopy in 1998, the year my Dad was diagnosed with colon cancer. The procedure itself is easy – the doctor gave me a nice dose of drugs and I had a very
pleasant slumber from which I did not awake until it was over. In the recovery room the
nurse told me the drug gives patients temporary amnesia. When she showed me the
color photograph of my rectum and colon I was glad I couldn’t remember it.
I know many people like me who are on the other side of fifty and have not undergone
the procedure. They grimace and groan when I regale them with my tall tales of how
famished I get after a full day of a liquid diet and how I follow it with a phospho-soda so
potent I can actually feel it going through my guts. Maybe I shouldn’t brag about the
gory details, but the story has a happy ending when I tell them I came out clean – meaning they found no polyps, a potential precursor to cancer.
In exchange for a little over twenty-four hours of hunger pangs, topped off by chemically induced diarrhea and an enema, I have five years of peace of mind. Five years in exchange for twenty-four hours of discomfort is a good trade off. Memorial Sloan-Kettering doctors believe that regular colorectal cancer screening could reduce U.S. cancer deaths from this disease by half, and could prevent many cancers from ever developing. Every time I undergo the screening test, I place myself in the healthy half.
I had my second colonoscopy a few weeks ago and again went through the unpleasant preparation necessary to get ready for the test. When I had the test in 1998, two of my co-workers were pregnant. They passed the ultrasound pictures of their unborn babies around the office. “Hey, I have a picture of my insides too,” I boasted. “Want to see it?” The answer was a resounding: NO!
As I prepared for my second colonoscopy, those ultrasound images are now five-year-old children who are preparing to start kindergarten. Reflecting back on the years that have passed since my colonoscopy is not exactly like reminiscing about childbirth or a wedding anniversary but it did make me stop to ponder my father’s fate.
If he had had the cancer screening in time, he would still be alive today. He would
have attended his grandson’s wedding and would still be in the beautiful home he built
on top of an Arizona mountain with views of the desert below that he so loved. My
devastated Mother would not be alone.
I will continue to get the colorectal cancer screening as often as my physician recommends it. True, it can’t protect me from other cancers or a variety of diseases or accidents that might kill me. But it will protect me from my father’s fate and so I do it partly in his memory.
I drove my husband to the outpatient surgery center last week for his screening test. The nurse remembered me. “Hey, weren’t you just here?” she asked. I told her my husband and I get the colonoscopy done at the same time so we can get if over with. “I get my screening test every five years but I can’t get my husband to do his,” she sighed.
Too bad, I said to myself. When screening tests are available that could potentially add years to a person’s life, he owes it to his family to undergo them, no matter how unpleasant. If you haven’t had the test and your doctor has recommended it, stop and think about what you were doing in 1998, and how much your family would have missed you these past five years. Then go call your doctor.
Kathleen Vallee Stein