"To be too certain of anything is the beginning of bigotry." -- Novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah

Friday, August 18, 2023

Never Say Never

     My intention was to close down this blog (see my May 2023 post "Last Lines"), because I've written around 1200 posts, and -- good grief! -- how much can we say about Baby Boomers, retirement, or our personal lives?

     But never say never. I have a few more topics that could addressed . . . including a particular medical procedure that I last suffered through about five years ago. And after that humiliation, I said I'd never do that again!

     Well, here I am five years later, and guess what? I found myself lying on my side on a cold hospital bed, after a full day at home in the bathroom cleaning out my system. Yes, I was getting another colonoscopy.

     I've read that when you get to a certain age, they stop giving you a colonoscopy, because the reason for a colonoscopy is to find pre-cancerous polyps and get rid of them. But polyps are apparently slow-growing beasts. Once you reach age 75 or so, and you're still clean, they figure something else will get you first, even if you do get a cancerous polyp in your colon. I figure I might have one more colonoscopy to go.

     On the other end of the age spectrum, they recommend you start getting colonoscopies at age 50. In my case, I managed to delay year and had my first test -- it was actually a sigmoidoscopy -- at age 51. A sigmoidoscopy (which I don't believe they do anymore) does not use any anesthetic (yes, it hurts!), and only looks at the last few feet of your colon, where polyps are mostly likely to grow.

     When my doctor first told me about this, I was horrified. I couldn't believe that anyone would do that to me! I rushed home and called my parents, who were alive at the time. Had they ever heard of this? "Oh, yeah, sure," they responded off-handedly. "We go in every few years. The doctor usually finds something. He cuts it out, and we go about our lives. No big deal."

     Well, the doctor did find a polyp in that sigmoidoscopy. He then made me come back for a full colonoscopy. So with those two procedures, I had quite the initiation. Then I had to go back again three years later. Fortunately, that test was clean, and so I was then given a five-year reprieve.

     Now I've been through several colonoscopies. In one way this current test was easier. Instead of the gallons of dreadful-tasting drink they used to make me gag down, they prescribed two rounds of pills, chased with a couple of quarts of water over the course of an hour and a half.

     But in another way it was harder. My procedure was scheduled for 8 a.m. That meant I had to start round one at 5 p.m. the day before. Then I had to do the second round starting at 2 a.m.

     So the bottom line (forgive the pun): I was awake most of the night. But here's the thing. If I had never had my original tests, the polyp that started growing when I was 51 would probably have killed me by now. So I credit my doctor for saving my life all those years ago.

     Colon cancer is the second most common cancer killer in America today. It typically begins with the growth of a polyp, small abnormal tissue that can appear on mucus membranes. Most are benign. Some can eventually progress to cancer, but it is a slow process that usually takes five to ten years.

     The symptoms of cancer include a change in bowel habits, bleeding, anemia, bloating or unexplained fatigue. But the sneaky thing about colon cancer (like a lot of other cancers) is that the symptoms often don't show up until it's too late. So the trick is to catch it early, before symptoms show up.

     There is one non-invasive test that detects blood in the stool long before it becomes visible to the naked eye. Unfortunately, the test is not very accurate. But if you do test positive for blood, or for anyone over age 50, doctors typically recommend going the next step, which is the colonoscopy.

     There are variations on the procedure. One option is the virtual colonoscopy, done with computer imaging -- but the more recommended method involves a doctor snaking a thin tube equipped with a camera and a cutting instrument up the length of your colon. If there's a polyp . . . snip, snip, and it's gone. The procedure is done with minimal risk. Or, as the nurse in the hospital room told me, "I like this assignment, because nobody dies here."

     That was a relief. Anyway, Medicare pays for most of the procedure, especially if you have supplemental insurance like AARP United Health Care.

     So, proving that human beings can get used to almost anything, the colonoscopy has become a regular routine for me (for my wife, too). And judging by how crowded the medical office was, it's become routine for a lot of other older people as well.

     If you want to know more about colonoscopy you can check out information at the Mayo Clinic or Web MD. Meanwhile, I hope I haven't been too flip about what is really a serious disease. But, hey . . . at least I didn't include a photo!