I’m usually the kind of person who is very proactive about health: yearly physicals, eye exams, dental cleanings and the like. But I had a resistance to getting a colonoscopy. As a 40-year vegetarian with excellent health and no colorectal cancer on either side of my family, I felt my risks were very low. In fact the only risks seemed to be my age (I am now 58) and my Eastern European Jewish heritage, which carries a slightly higher risk.
When I was 54, a concerned doctor convinced me to take a fecal occult blood test (FOBT), which came up positive. Even then I wasn’t concerned enough for further testing. After all, I felt fine!
More years passed uneventfully. Then in early February of 2013 the tide turned. I stayed home from work for a week with vague stomach complaints and lack of appetite and excessive hiccupping. A visit to Urgent Care suggested gastroenteritis – mere stomach flu. A few more days passed. Still no better, I returned to Urgent Care and saw a different doctor who ran a series of tests: blood work, chest x-ray, EKG. It was finally a CT scan that told the tale: I had a six centimeter tumor on my colon that was blocking my bowel.
In a daze I was rushed by ambulance to the nearest hospital, where a four-hour surgery was performed that very evening. My colon was five times its normal size and could have ruptured at any time. I awoke with much of my colon gone, along with the tumor removed and a “temporary” colostomy taking up residence on my belly. I spent nine days in the hospital recovering, with no food or drink for the first five. I finally returned home with an eight-inch incision, a colostomy that needed emptying about six times a day (even now, three months later) and a month later I began FOLFOX chemotherapy.
While chemo is saving my life it is also (temporarily) reducing the quality of it. I suffer from fatigue, neuropathy, queasiness, off-taste in the mouth, hair thinning. I’m almost halfway through the regimen. With stage III colon cancer I have a pretty good prognosis. My CEA levels dropped in the first month of chemo from 36 to 7! That is awesome.
Mine is a cautionary tale. A colonoscopy at 50 would have found cancer at a much earlier stage, maybe even as a polyp. My story encouraged my 55-year-old vegetarian sister to have her first colonoscopy recently. Like our parents and brother, she had not so much as a polyp. So why did I hit the jackpot? It doesn’t matter. Please share my story with those you know who are as foolish as I was. A colonoscopy is no one’s idea of a fun couple of days, but it’s got to be better than a colon cancer diagnosis!
-Mal Schoen, 58
Menlo Park, CA