I turned 50 last January 28. I celebrated with a few close friends at a lovely dinner, but I greeted age 50 with an impending feeling of doom, despite the fact that I am in good health, have good friends and a wonderful family. I have always been proactive about my health — I exercise, have regular check-ups and dental cleanings, and my mammograms are on schedule. But at age 50 I knew I had to do something that I had been putting off for years. I knew I finally had to get a colonoscopy, and I was terrified.
I have been putting off the colonoscopy for a good ten years, despite the pleadings of my internist, my husband, and my friends. My mother was diagnosed with colon cancer in her 80’s, and I know I am at risk. I know this procedure could save my life. A different person might be scared of the results, but for me, it was the procedure. But not the part you would think. I was terrified of the laxative drink.
Scared of a drink? “Suck it up,” my friends implored, one after another. “Nobody likes it; it‘s gross, but we all do it.” I wish I could.
You see, I’ve always been the pickiest eater on the planet — probably unlike anyone you know. At 50 plus, I’ve still never had a soda or a Big Mac. I didn’t have an apple until college, and I swear that if it were socially acceptable, I would still eat on a plate that separates my foods. I literally cannot stomach the vile liquid that makes you “go”. It’s not like I haven’t tried.
Two years ago, I made an attempt to literally suck it up (or get it down). Following instructions, I began the colonoscopy prep by eating a low-fiber diet (as you might imagine, cutting out leafy green vegetables was not a huge sacrifice). The day before the test, as instructed, I started fasting. I can go without food without a problem, but by four o’clock, anticipating glassful after glassful of the required liquid, I had worked myself up into such a nervous state that I brought on a migraine.
And then I spent the next few hours with the wrong end over a toilet bowl. I never even came close to drinking the stuff.
It’s hard for me to admit that I am a grown woman, with a grown daughter, who cannot down this drink which could very well save my life, but I can’t. And I am sure there are others out there like me, or at least others that find the idea of the colonoscopy prep so distasteful that they have delayed or decided not to have a colonoscopy at all.
But I knew that with my family history, I couldn’t delay. I started obsessively following news of advancements in colonoscopy prep and procedures, hoping that by age 50, some miracle of modern science would find a way. There was already an alternative available: A regime of taking 30 or so horse-sized pills instead of the liquid. With a little research, though, I found that this regime could potentially be damaging to the kidneys, and since that research came out, the pill regime is no longer an option.
I had read that the Israelis were working on an alternative, and that gave me hope, but my salvation came practically from my own backyard. Dr. Michael Zalis of Massachusetts General Hospital recently developed a way to have a “virtual” colonoscopy that doesn’t require the laxative prep. It has been so successful that they are no longer in the trial phase and are now scheduling the test routinely.
A laxative-free colonoscopy? Sign me up. I called Dr. Zalis’ office the next morning and got the low down on the procedure. Using contrast dyes and a CT scan, a computer algorithm is able to remove the stained matter and show a perfectly clear view of the colon. Instead of the liquid, the patient ingests contrast dyes, a teaspoon at a time with every meal.
The dyes supposedly can be mixed into almost any food or drink allowed on the “low residue” diet that starts two days before the test. One day prior to the test, the diet gets more restrictive and includes a bizarre list of foods, including Lipton Extra Noodle Soup, Cookie Dough snack bars, and Boost Very Vanilla shakes. In all honesty, I’m a little scared of the vanilla shake, but if I have to stand over the kitchen sink with my fingers pinching my nose, I am going to get that drink down.
So what’s the catch? The test is not covered by insurance and will cost me $500. But it’s worth it. My test is later this month, and I promise to report back on the ins and outs of the “virtual” colonoscopy. Stay tuned.
Part 2 Coming Soon.