I originally published this one in 2016, on a platform that targets African Americans. I was nervous about being so transparent as I hit “send.” The first email I received about it was from a guy who wrote that he’d scheduled his long-delayed procedure after reading my column. So here’s to transparency — and to your health.
I know what you’re thinking. I swear I do. “Michael, we do NOT know each other well enough for you to be telling me about you getting a probe stuck up your…”
But I think you’re wrong. I know you well enough to know one word that you’re uncomfortable with — if not downright scared of: Cancer.
Unless we’re talking astrology, it’s a word none of us wants to hear. I heard it recently, preceded by the word “colon.” It was the diagnosis that my 50-year-old brother-in-law recently received.
After hearing about his colon cancer diagnosis and recovering from the news, I did a little research. As it turns out, I (as an African American man) am up to 43% more likely to die from colorectal cancer, or colon cancer, than my white brother-in-law. His doctor found several cancerous growths in his colon, but since they were found early, they were removed and after chemotherapy and radiation, he’s now cancer-free and on the mend.
Now, back to me: I’m 43% more likely to die of colon cancer than a white man. I never was too crazy about math, but I really hated THAT figure.
I shared my fears and concerns with my doctor, and learned that a colonoscopy was the best screener for the types of polyps that can become cancerous. That test led to my brother-in-law’s diagnosis, and I was terrified to have it myself. During a colonoscopy, a probe with a camera on it is inserted in your rectum and snaked through your lower intestine (or colon). The procedure lasts about 30 minutes.
I didn’t like the sound of any of that. Without getting too graphic, my rectum has always been an exit, not an entrance. I almost collapsed from anxiety during a prostate exam years ago, and that was only a few seconds of probing with my doctor’s finger.
No, I didn’t like the sound of any of that. But I realized I’d also hate the sound of my daughters crying over my casket, having lost me to an illness that I could have avoided by having a simple diagnostic test administered early enough to make a difference. Studies show that with early detection, there’s a very high recovery rate for colon cancer patients.
I kept researching. I remembered Katie Couric’s famous on-camera colonoscopy, and I pulled it up on YouTube. My girl Katie actually broadcast live during her procedure! I’ve always been competitive, so I decided if Katie could do it, so could I.
I also set out to alleviate my chronic colorectal concerns by continuing to learn as much as I could about the procedure. One of the things I learned was that most patients say the “prep” is the worst part of having a colonoscopy. The “prep” amounts to a fairly restricted diet — no fiber, raw green veggies, nuts or nut butters, seeds, etc — for five days before the procedure, and a VERY restricted diet the day before (nothing but clear liquids).
As the final step of the “prep”, the night before the procedure, I drank an unbelievably large amount of clear electrolyte-laden liquid. I also made more trips to the bathroom than I could have fathomed. It was a VERY wise decision on my part to stay very close to my bathroom during these hours. I went to bed early that night, and upon awakening I repeated that electrolyte regimen a few hours before my actual procedure. With all of that fluid, I hope I never experience waterboarding.
Now, I have the good news: that “prep” IS in fact far, far worse than the procedure and absolutely the most uncomfortable part of having a colonoscopy. In fact, during the actual in-patient procedure, I experienced more pain having the IV inserted in my hand than I did getting the probe inserted in my ass.
Seriously. I wouldn’t lie to you. I know how scared I was to have a colonoscopy, and I want you to know how misplaced that fear was.
I recall, minutes before the procedure was to start, my doctor telling me they were about to administer the anesthesia. I remember feeling a little drowsy and being asked to lie on my side. When I woke up…
yeah, that’s what I said. WHEN I WOKE UP
the doctor told me that the procedure was done. I thought he was kidding. I was told I was semi-conscious the whole time, but I recall nothing from the moment I rolled over on my side until I came to in the recovery room. Thank God I didn’t have the colonoscopy on-camera like Katie Couric did. I’d have treated viewers to a half-hour of snoring.
I’m thrilled to tell you that I was polyp free. “Clean as a whistle” according to my doctor. I was advised to continue a high fiber diet, and unless I experience problems or symptoms, I don’t have to have another colonoscopy for 10 years. So I’m going to continue to eat as many salads as I can stomach — I’m actually starting to LIKE them! — and continue to ease off of the red meat.
Now, here’s what I want YOU to do:
Schedule your colonoscopy. Then, share this story, especially with the men in your life. Husbands, brothers, sons. Typically, we men don’t consult with doctors as often as we should. Having a colonoscopy is easy and pain-free, and the procedure is saving lives every day.
Maybe one of those saved lives will be yours.