Thursday, December 13, 2012

Getting to the Bottom of Colon Cancer

     There's no way to put a pretty face on it, and no way to stem the tide:  I've been scheduled for a colonoscopy.

     B and I each had a colonoscopy a little over five years ago. B is blessed with good genes and a clean alimentary tract, and was told she didn't need to get another test done for ten years. But I had a few bits and bumps that the doctor judged had to be removed. He told me I had to come back for another round in five years.

     Now my time is up. [But don't worry, in the interest of discretion, and retaining my PG rating, I am not including a photo in this post.]

     So in preparation for my test  -- no, not that preparation, but getting ready for it emotionally and psychologically -- I've done a little research into this disease, which according to my gastroenterologist is the second most common cancer killer in America today.

      Colon cancer and cancer of the rectum -- sometimes lumped together as colorectal cancer -- typically begin with the growth of a polyp, small abnormal tissue that can appear on mucus membranes. You can get polyps in your stomach, your sinuses, your uterus, bladder or vocal chords. Or in your colon. Most are benign. Some can eventually progress to cancer, but it's a slow process that usually takes five to ten years.

     The symptoms of colorectal cancer include a change in bowel habits, bleeding, anemia, bloating or unexplained fatigue. But the sneaky thing about colon cancer is that the symptoms often don't show up until it's too late. There is one test -- for fecal occult blood -- that can detect bleeding in the colon long before it becomes visible to the naked eye. But the test is not particularly accurate -- the bleeding may not show up, or it could be due to something as simple as hemorrhoids.

     If you test positive for occult blood, or for those of us over age 50, especially if there's any family history of colon cancer, doctors typically recommend going on to the next step, which is a colonoscopy. There are variations on the procedure -- for example, one option is the virtual colonoscopy, done with computer imaging -- but the usual method involves a doctor snaking a thin tube equipped with a camera and cutting instrument up the length of your colon. If there's a polyp . . . snip, snip, and it's gone, long before it turns into cancer, and the procedure is done with minimal risk and usually no adverse effects.

     I have undergone three colonoscopies in my day. Up until now they were covered by insurance, after a $50 copay. But I've found out that my plan has changed -- now it's subject to my $1000 deductible. And since I've been lucky enough not to use up my deductible this year, it's gonna cost me. But I figure it's worth it if it, literally, saves my ass (oops, there goes my PG rating). Next time  around, I'll be on Medicare. Does anyone know if Medicare covers colonoscopies?

     I first heard of this test in 1999, when I was 50 and went for my usual physical checkup. The doctor asked me if I had a family history of polyps. I didn't know. We didn't talk about such things in my family. Then, after he explained the procedure, I was horrified. I really couldn't believe he'd do that to me. I rushed home in a panic and immediately called my parents. Did they ever have polyps? Had they heard of this test? "Oh yeah, sure," they told me offhandedly. "It's no big deal. We go in every few years. The doctor usually finds something, but he takes it out, cleans us up, and we're good to go. No problem."

     So I went for the procedure, and now -- proving that human beings can get used to almost anything -- it no longer seems quite so shocking to me. It's become almost routine, like it did for my now dearly departed parents. Okay, the preparation is a little nasty. You do, after all, have to clean out your colon so the doctor can see what he's doing. But, hey, let's be mature about this.

     If you want to know more about colon cancer, the Webmd page on colorectal cancer is a good place to start.

     In the meantime, about six or eight years ago, I gave up eating red meat, in part because the consumption of red meat, especially processed meats like bacon or lunch meats, supposedly increases your risk of contracting colon cancer. I gave up smoking long ago, and I try to get a decent amount of exercise and keep my weight at close to a normal level (with limited success) -- all of which is supposed to help you avoid the perils of colon cancer, as well as any other kind of cancer.

     If I sound flip about what is really a serious disease, I just don't know how else to approach it. And beyond taking the usual precautions, I guess there's nothing else to do but hope for the best. Wish me luck!



Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

I had a type three tumour removed in July 2008 because my doctor was not concerned about a huge lump on my left side. Huge, the size of an orange was what the surgeon found and removed along with a big part of the large colon. I refused the chemo afterwards because I was more scared that would kill me. Instead I opted for a daily herbal tea, Essiac and luckily it has worked well for me.
My next colonoscopy is in March.

Linda Myers said...

Not fun, but necessary. That's my take.

Stephen Hayes said...

I do wish you luck. I've had a colonoscopy and it really isn't the big deal I worried about. I imagine it will soon be time for another one.

schmidleysscribblins, said...

I'm seeing my gastroenterologist in January for a follow-up, required for the prescriotion I take for stomach issues. I had both ends investigated about 3 years ago.

Stomach acid causing GERD is an issue for me. Plus he discovered another issue with bile juices leaking back into my stomach. The sphincter muscle at the bottom of my stomach does not close properly. Very important check-up. Dianne

Douglas said...

Do we have a Great Title Award? We should and this one should definitely be nominated.

June said...

Y'might as well be flip about it. What else can you do? Good for you for following through on the doctor's five year recommendation! Mine is every three years. My mother had lots of polyps and so far I've been following in her footsteps. I don't care. I have ducked bullets many times so far and I'm not about to mess with my luck.

#1Nana said...

My goal is to be hit by a cement truck while crossing the street in my 100's...guess I'll follow through with those checkups. Is there a Hallmark greeting for undergoing this procedure? Have fun, doesn't seem appropriate.

Jono said...

I am due for my second one in the next couple of years. Lost a young (49) friend to it last year. I don't want anyone to go like that.

Dick Klade said...

I've had two. One benign polyp removed the first time, none found the second go round. The docs now have me on the "10-year return" schedule.

Medicare and Blue Cross covered all the cost both time. However, it's been a while, and things may have changed.

Bottom line (aw, just couldn't resist): You'll do just fine. Good luck.

Rita said...

I'm glad you wrote about this. I was going to do a post after my last colonoscopy, but haven't done it yet. I took a photo of the "drink" bottle to include with the post.

This is such an important topic. A woman I know who belongs to an HMO died recently of colon cancer. The doctors found it because she had a 3 inch tumor in her liver. The colon cancer had spread there and to her lungs.

She had a sigmoidoscopy, which doesn't go up as high as a colonoscopy, because the HMO policy is that women don't often get colon cancer in the upper region.

It is such a tragedy. She was a dynamic woman, very important to her large family.