Cancer. One survivor likened hearing the diagnosis to an out-of-body experience — it was like watching it happen to somebody else. It couldn’t be you.
Oh, yes it could.
According to the American Cancer Society, in the U.S., men have a slightly less than one in two lifetime risk of developing cancer; for women the lifetime risk is a little more than one in three.
The key to surviving cancer is early detection of the disease, before it’s had a chance to spread beyond its site of origin. Recent improvement in cancer survival rates are due in large measure to the availability of better cancer screening technology. But better screening technology means nothing if you don’t take advantage of it.
My mom is a perfect example. She postponed getting her colonoscopy two or three times. She had very good reasons for putting it off, including even surgery to repair a torn meniscus (cartilage) in her knee. The colonoscopy was routine, not an urgent matter, in her mind. She had no personal history of cancer and no history of colon cancer in her family. And (unlike her eldest child, yours truly) she ate right, walked on her treadmill every day and, at age 67, was pretty darn fit and healthy. So she didn’t think twice about it. She had a new appointment for the colonoscopy in January 2004. She never made it. Mom came down with “a bug” right after Christmas 2003. Her stomach didn’t feel well for the next week; she had mild abdominal pain and bouts of diarrhea. In the wee hours of Jan. 3 the pain became intense, too intense to bear. My father brought her to the E.R. at Central Suffolk at 4 a.m. and called me up in tears.
Mom’s pain was caused by a near-total blockage in her large intestine. There, nestled in a location that allowed its growth to go undetected for probably more than a couple of years — because stool passing that part of the bowel is still in a liquid state, so no obstruction and hence no pain occurred — was a cancerous tumor the size of a softball. And the cancer had already spread beyond her colon to points throughout her abdominal cavity, rendering impossible any meaningful treatment or containment of the disease. Her surgeon at University Hospital, Dr. Martin Karpeh, could only remove the blockage and advise us to do what we could to ensure her comfort for the rest of her life — a period of no more than three to six months. We got that news on Jan. 14. She died on April 11, Easter Sunday.
My point in sharing some of the details of my mother’s ordeal is simple. Early detection means the difference between life and death. If my mother had regular colonoscopies, as all people age 50 and over should have, that softball-size tumor would have never had a chance to grow and spread. Odds are, it would have been detected when it was a mere polyp, and removed by the doctor doing the colonoscopy — without so much as a tiny incision. And my mom would be here with us today.
Let me say it again: Early detection means the difference between life and death. Remember, like my mom, you may not have any symptoms — until it’s too late. So early detection can’t happen without screening. And there is no excuse not to get screened for this completely preventable type of cancer — polyps removed are polyps that don’t have the opportunity to become cancerous tumors.
But people dread the screening. Let’s face it, the idea of a doctor probing your intestines with a tube inserted in the anus — well, it’s not something most people look forward to. Other people fear the “prep.” Because of my mother’s fate, I had my first colonoscopy before age 50, in the summer of 2004. (Two polyps were found and removed. I’ll be having another colonoscopy this year.) I can speak from personal experience.
The day before the test, you’re on a liquid diet. The evening before the test, you spike a glass of juice with a couple of ounces of a citrus-flavored liquid that’s a mighty laxative. An hour or so after drinking this little cocktail, you spend about an hour in the bathroom. And that’s it. The next morning you repeat the drill, but bathroom time is significantly less.
The test itself lasts between five and 20 minutes. You’re given a light anesthesia and don’t feel a thing, during or afterward. For me, the worse part was being involuntarily subjected to watching Regis Philbin having a pedicure during the “Regis Show” on TV while waiting for my turn with Dr. Dhrien Mehta, the gastroenterologist who did my colonoscopy at Central Suffolk. I was up and out in little more than an hour, and back at my computer working by noontime.
The tiny probe used by Dr. Mehta can remove polyps and also take color images of the inside of your colon. Dr. Mehta proudly displays these images for you during your post-test office visit. I can say they are some of my most photogenic pictures ever.
As FDR said, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, folks. Don’t let fear stop you from screening for colorectal cancer, because fear won’t just paralyze you — in this case, your fear could kill you.
March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. If you’re 50 or older, have a colonoscopy. Call your doctor for a referral. Don’t delay. You could very well pay for your procrastination with your life. For more information visit www.cancer.org, the very informative and useful website of the American Cancer Society.
A Relay for Life fund-raiser for cancer research and education is scheduled in our community on June 16 and 17 at Riverhead High School. Riverhead Relay for Life has its kickoff meeting tomorrow night, Friday, March 3, at 6:30 p.m. at Riverhead High School. Get involved in this worthy cause. Join a team or support a friend who’s participating. After all, can you think of anyone whose life has not been touched by cancer?