The American Cancer Society predicted 49,700 colon cancer deaths in 2015. Statistically, only 40%, four out of ten people, are diagnosed early when treatment can be successful. Even so, we know that if this disease is caught early, the survival rate is 90%. Why wouldn’t people want to have a test where they could save their lives in the face of a silent killer?
…because, intelligent readers, this test is the dreaded colonoscopy.
[Imagine here the four opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.]
Normally I use this blog to discuss topics of interest to writers and readers, but every so often I feel moved to talk about a totally “non-writerly” subject, and this is one of those days. Making the appointment to get a colonoscopy may seem more horrifying than jumping off the Empire State Building. Despite that warm and optimistic analogy, I’d like to convince you that the human toll of colon cancer makes the misery of early testing worth that decision. And I am the proof of that conjecture.
This past week I had a colonoscopy. Consider the mathematics here: first test at age fifty and then every ten years if no problem is discovered. For a few of us, however, the ten-year rule is reduced to five years.
That would be my older brother and me.
Why five years? In 1972, my mother died of colon cancer. Four years earlier, her cancer was misdiagnosed, and by the time doctors realized their mistake, it was too late. Back then, tests for colon cancer consisted of x-rays, and her x-ray was misread. As a result, she died at age fifty-six, which seemed terribly old to me then at age twenty-six, but terribly young now.
It is easy to quote statistics when it comes to colon cancer deaths and far harder to describe the impact of such a terrible tragedy. Her loss changed the entire course of our family and resulted in a sadness that has never left my memory. Our grandchildren never got to meet her, and our family life was impacted in every possible way. To say this was the greatest tragedy in our father’s life would not be the slightest exaggeration. His and my mother’s marriage was a match of love, and many times during those four years of suffering, operations, and painful memory-producers, he said that he wished he could take her place.
My mother died.
Yes, life went on. Children were born, jobs were attended, marriages and grandchildren came along as expected. But all of this happened without our mother to share the monumental joys of our lives.
Then, my younger brother came down with colon cancer and died at age forty-six. He was a sports writer for the Dallas Morning News and the Denton Register, and his death was a total shock. Chemotherapy and radiation cured his cancer, but a complication killed him anyway. Again, our family mourned such a terrible loss of a human being who had contributed so much time, effort, and money to charities and to mentoring young writers. Our children missed their uncle who shared their lives in so many happy ways. Another terrible loss to colon cancer.
Well, intrepid readers, the writing was on the wall for the genetic code of my older brother and me. And, even worse, our children might have inherited this genetic code. It has become, indeed, the family curse.
So, here I am at age sixty-nine, a survivor of three colonoscopies. Figure the math. Yes, I was a slow starter, and, as time goes by, I have expanded the wait time to seven years. I need a two-year window to talk myself into this test. This year was no exception since my last test was in 2008. I am no hero when it comes to scheduling a colonoscopy, but I feel like a seven-year interval means that at least I’m trying.
A colonoscopy is the gold standard for finding colon cancer early. It is a life-saver and a tragedy averter. But so many of us put it off because the prep for it is so difficult. I would be the last person to tell you that this prep has become any easier. It hasn’t. I could tell you it’s easy to deal with the day and night before the test, but I’m no hero, and it is still quite a formidable experience.
However, it is only one night in a life that is all the more precious for knowing it will continue.
The payoff is peace of mind, and that has no price tag.
My first test was perfectly normal. Seven years ago, my second test revealed two tiny polyps no bigger than the tip of my pinkie finger. They were removed, biopsied, and non-cancerous at that stage. Yesterday, once again, I had a perfectly clear colon. It was worth a sleepless night, an intimate understanding of how my intestinal track works over many long hours, and a freezing drive fifteen miles at 6:30 in the morning with a faithful friend to whom I owe so much for accompanying me.
And yes, this week I feel like I have jumped off the Empire State Building and survived without a scratch. How wonderful to know that something other than the family curse will eventually kill me. And, better yet, it is highly likely that this gene pool has not been passed on to my much-loved children and grandchildren.
And that, my friends, is worth all the sleepless nights in the world.