Colorectal cancer has been part of my vocabulary from a young age. Because of a family history of the disease, all of my first-degree relatives get screened with a colonoscopy earlier than the recommended age of 50. I remember driving my mom home from her colonoscopy when I was a teenager. I watched with curiosity as family members drank the dreaded “prep.” And I followed along as medicine advanced and both the prep and the procedure got easier.
All the while, I knew: eventually it would be my turn, too.
That turn came this year when I turned 40.
Of the many things that shocked my husband about the idea of me having a colonoscopy, the most immediate was his discomfort with how easily I talked about it. When I saw a friend at the grocery store, I explained my basket of chicken broth (see below) by telling her I was having a colonoscopy. When I took the day off work, I said it was for a colonoscopy. When I had to cancel a meeting, I said it again: “I’m having a colonoscopy that day.” Each time I said the word, Dustin cringed.
“Isn’t that kind of private?” he asked. “Like, should you be talking about it?”
“Would you feel the same if it were a mammogram?” I asked.
“OK, OK,” he said. “But you’re not going to write about it, are you?”
In fact, I am. Here’s why: According to the Centers for Disease Control, of cancers that affect men and women, colorectal cancer is the second most frequent killer. But, if everyone got regular screenings, 60 percent of those deaths would be avoided.
That is amazing, and not something to keep secret.
Some cancers are just easier than others to talk about. People like breasts in general. They don’t mind thinking or talking about breasts, even if they hate breast cancer. This normalization makes people pretty accepting of pink ribbons on their cereal box.
No one, however, wants to be reminded of “rectal” anything while they are eating their breakfast. But it’s a cancer that can mostly be avoided with regular screening. So it’s time to push past the embarrassment.
Here are some things I learned from my first colonoscopy:
Fasting is the worst
It’s true that you have to fast for 24 hours before the test. No way around it, this is the worst part. The good news, however, is that after 12 hours of no food, plain chicken broth tastes divine. By 6 p.m. the day before my test, I thought of chicken broth in the same way I think about ice cream on a regular day. And the mandatory liquid diet gives you free license to eat and drink things you normally would not: Jell-O, soda, popsicles.
My best advice in this regard is that you don’t buy your liquid-diet “food” stash too early. I bought everything the week before, and by the time I was in prep mode, my children had eaten all the Jell-O and drank all the soda. Normally, no one in my family cares about orange Jell-O. But put those Jell-Os in a special drawer in the fridge and say it is off limits, and everyone wants some.
Also, the temptation is great to ingest six meals the day before you can have no meals. The night before my prep, my motto was, “I’m going to eat all the things.” And I did, right up until 11:59 p.m. I felt very clever. Until the next day.
“Cleansing” is no joke
Your colon has to be absolutely empty before the exam, and not eating for 24 hours is not enough. You also have to take a ridiculous amount of laxatives and spend about five hours in the restroom. You will not be glad if you ate “all the things” the day before.
I actually felt sorry for my intestines before the first round. They had no idea what was coming, like a child who is blissfully reading a Highlights magazine when a nurse sneaks up with the flu vaccine.
By bedtime, however, the intestines were in overdrive. That’s when I drank a gritty substance mixed with Gatorade (choose your flavor carefully; you will never want this flavor again), and then, unbelievably, spent even more time in the bathroom.
But the exam is nothing
By the time I arrived at the hospital, I had one thing on my mind: food. By that point, I could do anything if it meant I’d get a chicken sandwich after. As the nurses inserted my IV and started the sedatives, I did not think about my rear-end hanging out of the gown and off the hospital bed. No, I just wanted a sandwich.
Less than 30 minutes later, the whole thing was done. It was that quick and totally painless. I got an excellent report and instructions to return in five years.
I will not eat chicken broth or Jell-O until then.