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Don’t Die of Embarrassment. Get Screened for Colon Cancer

For National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, the author gets over her embarrassment to talk about her colonoscopy and the importance of screening.

I’m a relatively modest person. I don’t go in for cleavage, but I also don’t mind having a male doctor, and if you ask me a personal question, I’ll answer it. That’s why I was surprised recently for feeling embarrassed at telling my colleagues that I was taking the day off to get a colonoscopy.

A colonoscopy is one of the best lines of defense against colorectal cancer — cancer of the colon or rectum, and the second leading cause of death from cancers that affect both men and women (lung cancer is number one). The tragedy is that more than 50,000 Americans die every year from a disease that’s highly preventable with screening. There are other screening options, and you should discuss the most appropriate course with your doctor.

Through a colonoscopy, doctors can search for and remove any precancerous polyps. The screening can also find cancerous growths early, when treatment can be very effective.

Yet too many people forgo screening because the parts of our body involved in a colonoscopy are generally taboo in polite conversation. And, they hear, the prep for cleaning out the colon for the screening is terrible.

After her husband, Jay Monahan, died of colon cancer, TV journalist Katie Couric underwent a colonoscopy on live television. She said no one should die of embarrassment.

I’m not going to do a full Katie Couric, but in observance of  National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month in March, I will work through my embarrassment to talk about my experience in the hopes that I can convince others to get screened.

I should have had my first colonoscopy long ago. My mother was diagnosed 20 years ago with colon cancer after a routine screening — like many people, she had no symptoms. Because the cancer was caught early, she fortunately never had another problem with it. She urged me to get screened. My primary doctors over the years urged me. Friends urged me.

But I couldn’t do it. Too distasteful a thought. And in earlier years, the mixture you had to drink to clean out your system in preparation for the screening was too foul.

Recently, however, my colleague Gloria wouldn’t let go of the subject, and, as it turned out, my husband’s new primary doctor was married to a specialist at a local hospital. I gave in and met with him to go over my medical history and the logistics — and see if I was comfortable with him. I was sent home with easy-to-understand instructions to prepare. Different doctors recommend different preps, but this is what mine recommended: I had to eat a bland, colorless diet for the week before the screening. Red Jell-O may seem bland, but the color causes problems for the doctor to clearly see the insides of the colon. The day before the procedure, I had to go on a clear liquid diet the entire day.

The prep also called for 64 ounces of Gatorade that I had to mix with a bottle of MiraLax, a powdered laxative, and drink the day and hours before the procedure. It wasn’t difficult to drink, although because of the schedule for drinking and the early screening appointment, I had to get up at 4 a.m. to finish the last 32 ounces.

With the drink and the laxative pills that I had to take, I wanted to be near my bathroom for my frequent visits, but the experience wasn’t bad.

What I greatly appreciated was that the doctors, nurses and technicians were all matter-of-fact and professionally pleasant. I was treated with respect and appropriate modesty.

I did not stay awake like Katie while my insides were scoped. There was no pain or discomfort during or after the procedure, although I did feel a bit unsteady after waking up.

My husband, who had been waiting for me (the hospital won’t allow you to leave on your own), took me out for sushi afterward.

About a week later, I received a letter from my doctor saying that he had removed some polyps during the procedure and that they were benign, confirming what he said he thought was the case when I woke up. He recommended a repeat colonoscopy in three years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that if you’re aged 50 to 75, get screened regularly. If you’re older, consult with your doctor about whether you should get screened.

According to the CDC, some symptoms may include blood in or on the stool; stomach pains that don’t go away; and losing weight for an unknown reason.

CDC notes that precancerous polyps and early stage colorectal cancers don’t always cause symptoms, so don’t wait to feel sick before making that appointment. Also, most colorectal cancers are not related to family history, so you’re not home free because the cancer hasn’t shown up in relatives.

You can get more information from the CDC’s Screen for Life campaign, which partners with state and tribal health departments across the U.S. to raise awareness about the benefits of screening.

I was fortunate, and I understand that some people don’t have as easy an experience. But it’s important that no one let embarrassment get in the way of going for a potentially lifesaving examination.

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