Comfortably sedated at St. Jude Medical Center's Knott Family Endoscopy Center in Fullerton, I glanced up at my doctor as he prepared for my colonoscopy. I was groggy but thought I'd seen him a week earlier at an awards presentation at my daughter's school. I soon learned our children were in the same class, something that in my haze apparently excited me. "Gooooooo, Bobcats," I said, referring to the school's mascot. I growled and made a gesture like a paw before I passed out. I'm blaming the medications.
That's all I remember. The next thing I knew, I was in a recovery room. I had never felt so well-rested; my second colonoscopy was behind me.
March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, an ideal time to talk about the importance of preventive screening, which I'm sure most people dread. Colorectal cancer – cancer of the colon or rectum – is the fourth most common cancer in the United States and the second leading cause of cancer deaths. But here's the good news: You can reduce your risk of colorectal cancer by getting a colonoscopy.
Doctors recommend that people get their first colonoscopy when they're 50 unless they have a family history of colorectal cancer or have unusual symptoms, including abdominal pain, bleeding and weight loss.
I had my first screening when I was in my late 30s. I had a symptom that concerned me and went to see my doctor. He referred me to a gastroenterologist for a colonoscopy. As you can imagine, I was thrilled.
"It's normal to be nervous or uncomfortable about having a colonoscopy," says Eugene Yoon, MD, my doctor and a gastroenterologist at the Knott Family Endoscopy Center. "And while you may be tempted to put this off or skip it altogether, don't. This test could save your life. Colorectal cancer usually starts from polyps in the colon or rectum.
During a colonoscopy, we can remove these polyps before they become malignant."
Dr. Yoon says patients receive medication that helps them relax and makes them forget the procedure.
"My patients have told me that the preparation is the hardest part," Dr. Yoon says. "The colon needs to be empty for us to do a thorough exam. That means patients have to fast and take medication that keeps them close to a bathroom."
That medication can come in liquid or pill form or a combination. Before my first colonoscopy, I had to drink two liters of a polyethylene glycol (PEG) bowel prep that tasted awful (I imagine dirty sea water tasting like that.) Before my second, I drank a magnesium citrate solution, which was much easier to get down. Before both exams, I fasted and drank only certain liquids. I remember longing for my daily latte and thinking non-stop about everything I wanted to eat.
But it was worth it and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. During my first one, Dr. Yoon found and removed a 1.5 centimeter villous adenoma polyp from my sigmoid colon. He told me there was a more than 50 percent chance of that polyp becoming malignant. I was polyp-free during my second colonoscopy. I'm hoping I'll be polyp-free at my next one.
Dr. Yoon understands why people are squeamish about this exam, but colorectal cancer deaths have been dropping for more than two decades. That's due to screening and improved treatment, he said.
"Your perception of this is much scarier than the reality. It will be over before you know it," he said. "It's worth the inconvenience."
For more information about Dr. Yoon, click here.