Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Colonoscopy - pain in the ass or lifesaver?

I was lying on a hospital bed, coming out of my groggy state when my gastroenterologist stopped by and said that the procedure went without a hitch. He had discovered a polyp in his journey through my colon and had lasered it off. I was to call him in a few days to find out if it was the cancerous kind.  Bummer.

This was my fourth colonoscopy in about 15 years. My older sister was initially diagnosed with colon cancer. She underwent a few surgeries but the cancer eventually metastasized and she died a few years after. I am the same age now as she was when she passed. Perhaps if she had gone for a check-up when she displayed some of the symptoms of colon cancer (unusual bowel movements, pain in the abdomen), something could have been done. But she was afraid and didn't do anything about it till it was too late. I found out that my uncle (my father's brother) also had colon cancer but fortunately, it was treated in time. So I guess that despite my relatively healthy lifestyle, it's a familial gene.

I will forever be grateful to my sister because if it weren't for her cancer, none of the rest of us siblings would have gone for a colonoscopy. When I first heard about the procedure, I was already dreading it. A gastroenterology specialist inserts a colonoscope, kind of like a thin, flexible tube, into the rectum and colon. It in turn sends images to a computer screen which then alerts the doctor to the presence of polyps which can be benign or malignant. There and then he can laser them off.

It's a fairly simple, straightforward procedure, painless because the patient is mildly sedated. The first time I had it done, a couple of pre-cancerous polyps were discovered and I had to go back for scopes again fairly regularly. The last couple of times, everything was clear and so I was told I didn't have to have it done for another five years.

I kept putting it off this time around. When I finally made the appointment and saw the specialist, he said it had already been seven years. I know why I wasn't looking forward to the whole thing. While the scope itself doesn't hurt, the preparation for it, in my opinion, is a big pain in the, haha, ass.

In order for the procedure to be done, my colon had to be cleaned out. Completely. I had to fast for at least 12 hours before. I went to the hospital bright and early thinking the whole thing could be speedily handled and I would be out of there in time for lunch. I am a wreck without breakfast and worse, coffee. Unfortunately, I had to go through the whole rigmarole of registering, consulting with the doctor because I hadn't been in a while, having my vitals taken, and clearing my mode of payment and insurance claims with the accounts department. That took about two hours of mainly waiting around. When I finally got to the Endoscopy unit, it was already mid-morning.

The reason why I dread a colonoscopy isn't the procedure itself but the cleansing process. At my hospital, we're given an entire liter jug of solution to drink. It tasted slightly different this time around, a noxious mix of chemicals that tasted foul, masked by a sickly sweet lemony flavor that I can still taste till today. I knew what was coming so I downed it as quickly as I could.

In the 15 years or so of my doing this, nothing much has changed. Those of us going through the procedure were seated in a room much like a doctor's waiting room, with some ancient magazines and a TV playing some Nat Geo program for distraction. We all looked sheepishly at each other, commiserating silently with one another's misery but not feeling at all inclined to chat. I was shown the toilets around us and I staked out the closest one, because, soon enough, the liter of solution made me go. And go. And go. The nurse told me to not to flush the toilet after my fourth or fifth time, so that they could check if what was coming out was, um, all clear.

I had the routine down pat so I didn't even bother to get a nurse until my tenth or eleventh time. Believe me, after that many times of going, I lost count. Also because I was feeling drained and nauseated. I didn't feel hungry anymore. When she looked at the toilet bowl which was pretty clear, she suspected that my system was still clogged up and I needed more solution to clean it out. "No, no, no," I remonstrated. "Believe me, it's all come out." She settled for my going one more time. Sitting around, waiting and going had taken up another two hours and it was already past noon.

When I had my first colonoscopy, there were only a few patients going through it in the unit as well and I could be done by lunchtime. This time, the whole place was chock full of patients, both young and old, surprisingly. Most of the others had a family member with them. One man had his wife, two daughters and two granddaughters! The nurse would always ask if I had someone with me and I would ruefully shake my head. It was bad enough going through something like this. Why would I want to subject someone else to waiting around for such an undignified procedure?

I was extremely grateful when I was given the all-clear and they finally found a bed for me. All I wanted to do was curl up in my misery and go to sleep. There was a period of waiting around again and when it was my turn, I was whisked in, injected and scoped. Then my bed was wheeled out again into the recuperative area and I must have slept, because when they finally deemed me fit to get up and dressed, it was 3 pm.

When I finally got home, I debated going straight to bed and making something to eat. Bed beckoned but I figured I would wake up later, hungry. So I made a light dinner (Brunner since it was technically my breakfast, lunch and dinner!) of noodle soup and dozed off soon after. That night I slept around the clock!

When I called the doctor a few days later for the results on the polyp he took out, he said that it was harmless and I wouldn't have to have another procedure for another seven to eight years. It's not something I look forward to at all, but considering how straightforward it is compared to some other procedures, I figure it's a small price to pay. Because colon cancer, while being one of the most widespread, is also one of the most treatable. Polyps are slow-growing and asymptomatic … until they start growing. Once there are symptoms of colon cancer, it's already way too late.

So I figure I'm out of the woods, at least where colon cancer is concerned. And giving up what was essentially a day of my life to undergo the colonoscopy wasn't such a big deal for a clean bill of health for my colon.

ps. I wasn't at all impressed with my doctor's bedside manners. While not rude or impatient with me, he was nonetheless gruff, showing not even a smidgen of humor or humanity. It can't be the most pleasant of specialties, poking through people's bottoms day in, day out, but hey, nobody held a gun to his head to take this up. Earlier in the day, I had seen him at the nurses' station, berating them for something they had done. I couldn't hear him but could see from his gestures (finger pointing insultingly at his brain) that he was giving them grief.

Nurses busy at work
On the other hand, the nurses who tended to me were true angels. Demonstrating patience and compassion with all the patients, not just me. One tiny, young nurse brought a bedpan to an elderly gentleman who was distraught and ashamed of needing one, dismissing his apologies with a smile. She offered to get me a hot chocolate when I came out of my woozy state. When I indicated that  I'd much rather have a coffee, black with no sugar, she said she'd see what she could do. She came back with a steaming cup and said she hoped I liked it because that was the first time she was making it. And gave me an extra packet of biscuits too, because I didn't want sugar in my coffee! I asked her how long she had been working there (six months) and if she liked it. She then chirped, "Enjoy!" What a great attitude, something the oh-so important doctor could learn, too!


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