Pat Olsen

(WOMENSENEWS)–I’m about to have my seventh colonoscopy today.

I can think of places I’d rather be than this surgical pavilion attached to my doctor’s office this morning, but I know I better keep this appointment.

According to the Atlanta-based American Cancer Society, in 2006 more than 55,000 Americans were expected to die from colorectal cancer. If caught early enough, however, the survival rate for colon cancer is around 90 percent. The society’s guidelines say that anyone over 50 should have a colonoscopy; that changes to 40 for a person with a family history of colon cancer.

A former women’s health contributor on NBC, Dr. Donnica Moore educates women about colon cancer on her Web site. It’s a misperception to think that colon cancer is a man’s disease, she notes. Women should know that for every five-year age increase, colon cancer risk doubles.

I have a triple whammy when it comes to being predisposed. My mother had colon cancer, I’ve had polyps, and several years ago I developed ulcerative colitis. Any one of these factors means I’m susceptible to colon cancer, but taken together I’m at high-risk for the disease. What’s more, because I have ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease, my chances of developing colon cancer are 15 or 20 times that of the general population. Also, I’ve had several serious flare-ups that required hospitalization. I’ll undoubtedly be having this procedure quite frequently from now on.

The Big Gun

Colonoscopy is the big gun in the colon cancer detection arsenal. There are other tools, such as kits for detecting blood in the stool, which may be an early indication of colon cancer, and sigmoidoscopy, which looks at the lower part of the colon. But colonoscopy looks at the entire colon and is the most thorough cancer screening method. My doctor says I’m not a candidate for virtual colonoscopy, in which I would swallow a pill containing a miniature camera, because the camera might miss some crevices.

I’m the first patient today. Because I have latex allergy, the doctor likes to schedule me in this slot, before many latex particles are in the air. While the nurse inserts an IV in my arm, I try not to look at the colonoscope, the black tube next to the examining table that is so central to my future. It appears to be only half an inch wide, but if I think about it too long it gets wider by the minute.

Statistically, my chances of getting cancer increase markedly eight or 10 years after I was first diagnosed with colitis. While I have three or four years before I reach this milestone, I’m still a little worried. I’ve read that if a colonoscopy turns up dysplasia, a pre-cancerous condition, it’s sometimes advisable to remove the colon as a preventative measure.

Laxative Is the Worst Part

I’ve been through this procedure enough times that I’m not nervous about the risks, which include bleeding and puncture of the colon. In fact, I’m constantly telling friends and family that they should have one. “It’s nothing,” I say. “Really. The worst part is the prep the night before.” I’m referring, of course, to the laxative everyone is required to take to cleanse the colon. The colon has to be completely empty so that the instrument can be threaded through the colon and so that the doctor has the best possible view.

“If I can do it, you can do it,” I preach to anyone who I think needs to have one. “And don’t forget, Katie Couric’s colonoscopy was televised, and the senior George Bush broadcast news about his.”

My preaching finally worked with my younger brother, who called me after his was over.

“Well?” I asked him.

“Nothing to it,” he said.

It took my friend Louise a little longer to give in, even though her mother had colon cancer like mine and she’s a nurse to boot. In her case, it was the embarrassment; she didn’t look forward to having the people she worked with see her in a compromising position, she said, but she didn’t want to go anywhere else, either. Louise finally had one and, like my brother, agreed that it was nothing to worry about.

Knocked Out

I hear the anesthesiologist approaching my bed in the room where they prepare patients for the procedure. My doctor always administered the anesthesia in the past, but her practice has boomed recently so she’s hired an anesthesia company to take over this part of the procedure. The new anesthesiologist tells me that from now on I’ll be put to sleep, and I’m half-disappointed. I liked waking up occasionally under the lighter drug and watching my colon on the screen in past years. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for being totally knocked out.

My gastroenterologist comes in and asks me if I’m ready. It seems that the moment I nod my head I’m out, and in the next minute I hear a voice announcing that the procedure is over.

“You have a lot of damage,” the doctor tells me, “but I didn’t see anything suspicious. She goes on to tell me about the many pseudopolyps she found, but I’m not nervous. I’ve read that unlike actual polyps, these won’t turn cancerous.

Her full report will come in a couple of weeks, but that was the news I needed to hear. It means I’m OK for another year. I know that when my husband and I go out to breakfast later, I’m supposed to eat light. So I’ll raise my orange juice glass and give thanks while remembering I’m just one of millions of Americans who undergo this procedure every year. And then I’ll have only one pancake instead of the two or three I really want.

Pat Olsen writes from her New Jersey home on business and health. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, On Wall Street magazine, Family Business, Hemispheres, United’s inflight magazine and Diabetic Living, among others. Pat is currently writing a book for siblings of alcoholics.

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For more information:

Dr. Donnica Moore:

Women’s, “Cancer of the Colon and Rectum”:

National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month:

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