I recently received a letter from a patient talking of a sad, but all too common situation that ends in tragedy. She told me that she attended a funeral of a 45 year old woman she knew, no history of colon cancer – the true epitome of physical and mental health. Unfortunately, she underwent a routine colonoscopy (although it may not have been as routine as she says) and found that she had stage 3 colon cancer.
She continued by saying that her grandmother had also recently died of colon cancer and that her father had had to have polyps removed regularly. Her concern was that now that she herself is 50 years old expressed dire interest in getting a colonoscopy. Our hope is that this one is in fact in time.
It is an absolute tragedy to hear of stories such as this one. It is unfortunate that it often takes such misfortunes to teach us all lessons in life. Being a gastroenterologist, I regretably witness such events frequently. However, I must admit that the most rewarding part of my work is that I have been given the ability by the all mighty to prevent such disasters on a daily basis. The routine colonoscopy is perhaps one of the most poorly understood and even feared procedures by the general population. Patients often present to my practice with stories of awful experiences that their friends or acquaints have recalled. Myths about the preparation, the procedure itself and complications leave patients fledged and anxious to the point that they put off going for the test.
The reality is that a colonoscopy is a very simple, safe and effective procedure. I always tell my patients that the worst part of the test is the preparation on the day before the test, and if done correctly, is not that bad at all. The procedure itself is absolutely painless and is usually quite comfortable. The entire procedure may easily be completed within 30 minutes. A short acting intravenous anesthetic is administered to the patient immediately before the procedure. The true benefit of a colonoscopy is that that is not only a diagnostic tool, but more importantly it is therapeutic. This means that if a polyp (abnormal tissue growth) is identified, it may be easily removed at the same time, so preventing and even curing a potential cancer from ever developing.
Most of my patients are relieved when the risks and benefits of the procedure are carefully discussed with them. But as the famous saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. It is always a pleasure to be asked the same question from my patients who wake up immediately after the test, "when are you going to start the procedure?" Egypt "That's it?".
Typically, people that should undergo colonoscopy are all people over the age of 50 years and those who have first degree family members (parents or siblings) that were diagnosed with colon cancer. Specific rules apply in various cases and can be discussed with a specialist. The most important concept to understand is that colon cancer is one of the most common causes of cancer death in the United States and it is also completely preventable. Consider the infinite merit of referring loved ones for a colonoscopy.