My mum has cancer. My mum, who is far too busy with life, helping at church, running craft lessons, keeping the nursing home’s kiosk stocked. My mum, who is far too energetic, far too healthy, and has NO family history – has cancer. She started off just over a year ago with colon cancer. It was operated on, removed, one round of chemo and a few lifestyle adjustments – the outlook was fantastic. However, three months later, when she was feeling fabulous and back on her feet again, tests showed the cancer had (insidiously, as cancer tends to operate) mestastasised to her liver. She is now undergoing a new round of chemotherapy to keep the liver cancer in check, to kind of corral it while she gets on with living her same old, insanely busy life.
Exactly the same that is, except for the cancer thing.
I’m spending this (American) summer back home, living more closely to my mum and dad than I have in many years, with my kids, in the same street I grew up in. And while I’m here, I’m getting a full overhaul. Top to toe, I am being checked out. The first step was a complete blood workup, which showed while my cholesterol and liver are fantastic, I am exceptionally lacking in a few things – Vitamin D, Iron and Folate. And I mean really, really lacking.
So off to the specialist, who said (as expected) that because of my ‘family history’ (which is actually, just my mum), I needed a colonoscopy every three years, starting NOW (I’m 42). But he also said that because of my bloodwork results, he wanted to do a gastroscopy as well (where they put a camera into your stomach for a bit of a look around). So tomorrow I’m having them both done.
What does this have to do with you?
The thing is, colon cancer is largely preventable. Oh yes, you read that right. If you thought lung cancer was obviously something you could somewhat limit, then add colon cancer to that thought. Then think about this: Colorectal cancer is one of the leading cancers causing death in the USA and Australia, but you know what? Almost every case can be stopped before it becomes an issue. If you wait for symptoms, then you’re waiting until the gate is open.
Don’t do it.
Be smart. If you’re 50 years of age with no family history of cancer, then you should be having a colonoscopy every three to five years. If you have a family history, it needs to start earlier, and be done more often. Just as you don’t want to wait for cervical cancer cells to spread and become symptomatic to remind you that you didn’t get a pap smear for five years, don’t wait for changes in bowel movements to remind you that you haven’t had a colonoscopy.
At that point you could be worried about saving your life instead of saving some money or time. That’s a big difference.
What’s a colonoscopy?
A colonoscopy isn’t akin to a resort weekend at a luxury spa. (I do think there should be a startup that does weekend getaways where you have the pap smear, mammogram/ultrasound, colonscopy all done with massages, facials and pedicures – a complete health weekend once a year that looks after the complete woman, inside and out… who’s with me?) I am having to fast for a full day beforehand, drink some solution stuff that will clear out the bowel and stomach, and then go in for day surgery tomorrow, where I will have drugs to space me out, and the surgeon will insert a camera into the intestine to have a good look for polyps and see what’s going on in there. If there are polyps (potentially the earliest indicator of cancer), he will remove them and send them for testing.
Because I’ll also be having a gastroscopy, he’s going to be putting a camera in through my mouth to look around in my stomach as well. I’m counting on them using different cameras. Really. My dad joked that putting a camera up my bum means the doctor must have a wide-angle lens. He’s soooooo funny.
My mum and dad are looking after the kids while I have this done and get me to and from the hospital tomorrow. They insist on doing this for me, cancelling their own plans for the day. I love that they have always said “family first” – I know my kids believe that too. We are one tight-knit family, and I love that about us. We stick together.
Ultimately, a colonoscopy is inconvenient, time-consuming, even somewhat embarrassing – yeah, even for me. I told the anaesthetic nurse that I don’t ‘do’ hospitals well and wanted them to ensure I was really knocked out and she nodded, explaining that it was only an easy sedation. Then I told her that I’d birthed all four of my children with nothing more than oxygen; that I wanted to be either completely with it, or completely knocked out – and I’d prefer the latter for this procedure – and she scribbled madly on her notes.
Final thoughts before I go through this are: This is not a choice, it’s a necessity. It will now be part of my life every three years, just as an annual pap smear and other preventatives are. And I think it’s my responsibility to share it with you, because even if you don’t have family history of colon cancer, you don’t want to be the first one in your family to make it that way – like my mum is. If you are anywhere near 50 years of age, I will hound you to have this done. Hound you. And I won’t apologise for doing it.
Secondly, while a colonoscopy is invasive, inconvenient and awkward, it’s far better than dealing with both cancer and its treatments – both of which will knock you for six, but the first of which will bloody well kill you.
Thirdly, if you don’t think enough of yourself to get a colonoscopy, then do it for your children. We all know that showing good behaviours to your kids will be likely to rub off on them too. What better gift could you give your own kids than to show them the standard healthy habits you want them to have themselves? Plus, with any luck, it could help ensure you’re there to look after their kids many years down the track while they have it done too.
Look after your colon. After all, it’s been putting up with your crap since you were born.
1 in 12 Australians will be diagnosed with bowel cancer by the age of 85, but 90% of them can be cured if caught early enough. (source: Bowel Cancer Australia)
1 in 20 Americans will be diagnosed with bowel cancer in their lifetime, with the median age of diagnosis being in their 70s. (source: US National Cancer Institute)