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Paul Gross: My first colonoscopy

DETROIT – Many people (especially guys) are squeamish about their own health. For some, it's just the fear of hearing something other than the news that you're fine. For others, the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality certainly prevails, and there are a lot of people who don't go to the doctor for even simple checkups. 

Well, after reading this, you may change your thinking on the subject.

It was now my turn. My internist told me that it's time I got a routine colonoscopy. 

To me, given my outstanding health due to working out and eating a low fat, high fiber diet, this was nothing more than a confirmation of my physical well-being. But in the back of my mind was a close friend of mine, Dorothy Richardson, who died in her 20s, the prime of her life, from colon cancer that wasn't diagnosed until it was too late. So I scheduled an appointment with Dr. Eric Szilagy at Henry Ford's Columbus Center in Novi.

I actually met Dr. Szilagy at last year's American Cancer Society Relay for Life in West Bloomfield. We were both speaking at the event, and were standing there off to the side talking, and waiting for our turn at the microphone. I figured that a doctor that passionate about getting the word out and taking time out of his weekend to speak at the event was impressive, so I already had a good doctor-patient relationship with him before even seeing him for the first time in his office.

The whole process started with a consultation, where Dr. Szilagy assessed my medical history and current physical condition, and explained how the procedure works. He mentioned that March was Colon Cancer Awareness Month, so I scheduled the procedure for March, figuring that I could help Dr. Frank McGeorge with his outreach message.

If you know anybody who has had a colonoscopy, you've probably heard that preparing for it is worse than the procedure itself, and that is absolutely true -- but things don't start off all that bad. 

One week before the procedure, I had to stop eating any nuts and seeds. That was actually a little tougher for me than it is for many of you, because I eat a lot of whole grains in my diet, including nuts and seeds. Worst of all for me was that I had to give up my favorite snack: Jordan Almonds.

 

Things then start ramping up the day before the procedure, when I couldn't eat anything except clear liquids, Jello (but not red, blue, purple, or orange colored Jello), and clear chicken broth. You'll be surprised how filling a big bowl of Jello is but, after a day of this stuff, I was certainly craving something else.

 

The evening before the procedure was the toughest part: I had to drink an entire jug of GoLYTELY, and it doesn't taste that great. I don't understand how we can land a man on the moon and put a spacecraft onto a comet, but we can't make good tasting GoLYTELY. 

The reason I had to drink this was to clear out my colon.  The doctor can't see much if there's "stuff" in the colon, so I had to clean the colon. I will NOT go into any kind of detail about how this process ensues, you can use your imagination. I will only make one comment: do NOT think that you can work on your NCAA brackets on the evening before your colonoscopy, unless you have all the technology you need in the bathroom. And I guarantee you that Dr. Szilagy had a squeaky clean colon to work with. 

As mentioned above, once I got through all of the preparation, the rest was one big coast downhill. In fact, the procedure itself was almost anti-climatic. At the doctor's office, I was taken back to a pre-op type of area, where I changed into one of those hospital gowns. They then took my vital signs and started an I.V., which was used later for the anesthesia. When my turn came, I was wheeled into the procedure room. Dr. Szilagy greeted me there with a big smile. I didn't ask, but I'll bet that smile is partially due to knowing that he has saved countless lives through this simple, fifteen-to-twenty minute procedure. Or perhaps he knows that I was thinking, "You're going to do WHAT to me, with THAT?" 

The nurses had me roll over onto my side, and then injected the anesthesia through the I.V. 

Within twenty seconds I was asleep. 

I woke up in the same place where my day began and, since they use a light anesthesia, it wore off rather quickly.  I felt perfectly fine, and had no discomfort whatsoever. The nurse came over and explained that since they pump air into the colon to make it easier to maneuver the probe through, my body will be trying to remove that air. In other words, she was politely telling me to pass gas.  It's the only time in my life that flatulence was being ENCOURAGED. She then brought me some orange juice and graham crackers, which was SO appreciated given my experience the day before.

Dr. Szilagy then came over, and I expected the standard "everything looks fine," line that he probably gives a lot of patients. And that's exactly what he said, followed by the word "but."  Yes, he found something, a small polyp. 

A polyp is an abnormal growth on the insde lining of the colon. They vary in size and shape, and are removed very simply by passing a wire loop or snare through the colonscope and snipping it off.  There is no pain involved, either during or after the procedure.

He said that the polyp looked pretty innocent and was probably nothing to worry about, but I'm waiting for the official confirmation of this after the pathology report comes back. Had I decided not to do any colonoscopies for whatever reason, it's possible that this polyp could have become cancerous over time. I could have developed colon cancer. And if I waited too long, I could have ended up dead like my friend Dorothy.

Assuming that the polyp was in a harmless state, I won't have to go back for my next colonoscopy for ten years. I think I can handle that.

If you've been putting off your colonoscopy because you're scared, don't be. This procedure involves no discomfort. You don't feel a thing, and most everybody wakes up with a clean bill of health and great relief knowing that they can scratch colon cancer off the list of things to worry about.  I strongly urge you to ask your doctor about when you need this exam.  For most people, the first colonoscopy happens around age 50.

Colon cancer kills about 50,000 people a year. That's a lot of people. But sixty percent of those deaths could have been prevented by a routine colonoscopy. Please take this seriously and, if you're due, get yours scheduled.


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