STEVE BOUSER: Why You Should Grin and Bear a Colonoscopy
Did you hear about the colonoscopy nurse who --
How many gastroenterologists does it take to --
Oh, forget it.
There must be a hundred colonoscopy jokes floating around out there. "I've heard 'em all," says my own gastro guy, Dr. Tom Swantkowski. But how many of them are suitable for a family newspaper -- especially one that some subscribers may not get around to reading until just before dinner?
Sure, there is something inherently funny, in a hysterical kind of way, about the idea of someone using a long, high-tech scope to look up your -- you know. But colonoscopies are a deadly serious, or lifesavingly serious, business. That, along with the fact that I just had another one performed, is what prompts me to devote today's column to what is admittedly one of modern life's more unsavory topics.
The colonoscopy I underwent a couple of weeks ago was perhaps the fifth I've had done in the past 20 years, starting when I was in my mid-40s. Is this because I'm some kind of masochist who relishes submitting himself to this periodic indignity? No, it's because my father, back in the 1970s when he was about the age I am now, died of colon cancer.
I told you this was serious. The sobering truth is that in more than one of my procedures, including the first, the doctors found and snipped away "adenomatous" polyps, which are precancerous little mushroom-shaped pods of tissue protruding from the inner bowel wall.
If the polyps had instead been allowed to grow undetected for all this time until they became symptomatic, there is a significant chance that I would have been dead and in the ground by now. (Clark Cox, our Pilot colleague and my good friend, died several years ago of just such a condition, which went undiscovered for too long. You may remember that he bravely wrote a series about it.)
It doesn't have to come to that unhappy -- er -- end.
"Even if you find and surgically remove a colon cancer, as long as it's small and asymptomatic, your chance of cure is 90 percent," says Dr. Swantkowski, who practices in the Endoscopy Center at Pinehurst Medical Clinic. "But if you wait until it's so advanced that symptoms appear, like belly pain or rectal bleeding, the cure rate drops to 10 percent."
Colonoscopies, with their remarkably effective ability to head off cancer before it can develop, are one modern medical procedure that undeniably works. If you, too, have a history of colon cancer in your immediate family, you should have your first one done around age 45 (or 40 if the family member's cancer appeared before age 50). Even if you don't have such a background, you should start at 50 and repeat every few years as directed by your physician.
If you're due for one of these things, please don't put it off. It's not the most pleasant thing in the world, but it's not nearly as bad as it sounds. No, really. The worst parts are going hungry the day before and then flushing your system out that night by drinking a gallon or half-gallon of super-duper clinical drain cleaner. That part is a drag, for sure. But if you follow the directions, everything -- you should pardon the expression -- comes out all right.
Thanks to the miracle of modern anesthesia, which makes you feel as if you just dozed off and woke up refreshed and hungry, you're not there for the actual exam. Nor are there any particularly troublesome after-effects, unless you count turning into a Class 4 wind machine in the recovery room. Don't be embarrassed. Everybody does it. The procedure involves pumping you up with air to get a better look, and what goes in must come out.
Swantkowski does about 1,200 of these babies a year. I asked him if they don't get a little old. "Actually," he cheerily replied, "I'd much rather do that than any other thing I do. If people come in with a good prep, it's like doing video games all day long."
Which video games, do you suppose? "Space Invaders"? Or maybe (there really is a popular game called this) "Mario and Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story."
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at (910) 693-2470 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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