The call came while I was at work Thursday, and it was an hour after I got home that evening before I even thought to check the answering machine.
"This is Dr. Hood's office," the voice said. "The biopsy on your polyp came back benign. The doctor wants you to have another colonoscopy in five years."
And that was that.
The American Cancer Society recommends colonoscopies starting at age 50 for people with no unusual risk factors. Since the death of my mother from pancreatic cancer in 2010, I've been active in the American Cancer Society Relay For Life, which I serve as a member of the local organizing committee. I know about the importance of screenings, and I certainly turned 50 earlier this year, but when my personal physician gave me a physical a couple of months ago, and said I needed a colonoscopy, I have to admit I wasn't enthusiastic about it.
But now I know I don't have colon cancer. And that's worth a lot.
I can't hope to match the brilliance of Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist Dave Barry's column about getting a colonoscopy. Dave put his off for 10 years, until his younger brother was actually diagnosed with colon cancer. Dave's column about the procedure can be found at the Miami Herald website, http://www.miamiherald.com/dave_barry.
But I can tell you a little about my experience. As anyone who's had a colonoscopy can tell you, and as numerous people told me, the worst part isn't the colonoscopy. I was sedated during the colonoscopy. No, the worst part is the night before.
On the day before my colonoscopy, I had to stick to a diet of clear liquids. (My gastroenterologist allows some fluids, like carbonated soft drinks, that many online what-to-expect sites left out.) You also have to avoid anything red or purple colored. Dave Barry described the chicken broth he had that day as like "water, only with less flavor." I think I actually lucked out; the broth I got from UGO was quite pleasant. I had chicken broth for my three "meals," just to have a sense of normalcy, and rotated among diet cola, Snapple green tea, and a nice lightly-sweet limeade that I also got from UGO.
Then, at 5 p.m., came the worst part of the colonoscopy experience.
It goes by different names; in my case, it was a product called Suprep. A box of Suprep includes two six-ounce bottles of liquid along with a 16-ounce plastic tumbler. You empty a bottle of liquid into the tumbler, then fill it the rest of the way with water. Friends had told me it tasted absolutely horrible, and one even suggested I drink it through a straw in hopes of bypassing my tongue. Because my expectations were so low, it turned out to be a lot less offensive than I expected. It had a cherry-plus-chemical taste, like cough syrup. I can't say that I enjoyed it, but it was no problem to down the glass in four or five big slugs. I was supposed to drink two more tumblers full of water over the next hour, and then take the other dose of Suprep at 10 p.m.
Using my cell phone, I posted a message to Facebook asking my friends how long it would take the Suprep to take effect.
About seven minutes later, I posted a new message: "Never mind."
Suprep, if you haven't figured it out by now, is designed to clean you out prior to your colonoscopy. You spend a lot of time in one particular room of the house after a dose of Suprep. I live in an apartment, and I wondered whether my neighbors would notice the fact that I was flushing in the double digits.
Fortunately, I'd been warned of all this. I had turned the bathroom into a little command post. I had a TV tray. I had not one but two smartphones -- my regular phone, and the Galaxy S III that I reviewed earlier this week for the newspaper. I was listening to Leo Laporte on one phone and using the other to surf the web, check Facebook, and try to get my mind off the situation. I had my Kindle as well.
Within a couple of hours, the situation had calmed down enough that I felt safe going downstairs to watch the hilarious "Night of Too Many Stars" benefit on Comedy Central. I still had to sprint upstairs a few times.
The 10 p.m. dose had a similar effect, and I didn't feel safe going to bed until 12:30 or so.
Originally, my father had been scheduled to drive me to Murfreesboro for the procedure. But a dear family friend had passed away over the weekend in Kingsport, and Dad had to leave first thing Monday. Walter Taylor from my church stepped in on short notice, for which I'll be eternally grateful.
We got to the doctor's office 45 minutes early and waited around. At the appointed time, the nurse came and got me. I changed into a hospital gown, climbed up onto a gurney, and she put a needle into my hand which would be used to inject the sedative. A few minutes later, I was being wheeled into the procedure room. They hooked me up to the sedative, and that's about the last thing I remember. The next thing I knew, I was back in the examining room getting dressed.
They'd told Walter that the doctor found and removed one polyp, and they handed me a paper saying the same thing. (They assume you're still a little woozy from the sedative and may not remember any serious discussions.) No one seemed concerned about this, but the polyp was to be tested and I was to get a call back with the results in a few days. Benign polyps are not uncommon in colonoscopies, and they can snip them off during the procedure. Some types of polyps can eventually become cancerous if they're not removed. (The possibility that they'll need to cut off a polyp during the colonoscopy is the reason they ask you to avoid blood-thinning drugs like aspirin for a week beforehand.)
Because of the sedative, I was supposed to avoid driving or making "major financial decisions" for 24 hours. Walter dropped me off at my apartment and I took it easy the rest of the day. The next day, not only was I back to normal but I ended up working a full day at the office plus a full night at the T-G's cooking show.
As I've already told you, the results were negative. The polyp was not cancerous. It's a load off my mind.
Many insurance plans will pay for a screening colonoscopy, no matter where you are on your deductible. In some cases, if the screening colonoscopy turns into a polyp removal, or a biopsy, it becomes a medical procedure and goes back under your deductible.
But, regardless of the cost, this is a procedure that can save your life. I'm going to paraphrase Dave Barry here, but I don't think he'll mind: If you have cancer, you have cancer. Finding it early will greatly increase the chance of removing it and restoring you to good health. Colon cancer has become a quite treatable and survivable kind of cancer if it's caught early. If you don't have colon cancer, a colonoscopy will give you the piece of mind of knowing that you don't have it.
It's important. If you're 50 or older, you need to stop putting it off. Go to http://www.cancer.org or ask your doctor for more information.
We'd like to keep you around to read the newspaper for a few more years.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government.