Feb. 5 is my cancer-versary.
On that day, my wife of more than 25 years took me to the gastroenterologist to have a colonoscopy.
Just two weeks earlier, I had visited my primary care physician. I’d been experiencing some strange symptoms and knew something wasn’t right. She told me to get a colonoscopy immediately.
I’d heard colonoscopies were uncomfortable, so I wasn’t thrilled about it. But I knew how important it was to heed my doctor’s advice. It turns out that my colonoscopy was a pretty simple procedure that ultimately saved my life.
How I knew I had colon cancer
It’s hard waking up from your colonoscopy to have your doctor tell you:
A. You have colon cancer.
B. We’re sending you over immediately for a scan to see how much it has spread outside your colon.
C. You’re scheduled for major surgery next week, followed by six months of chemotherapy.
Talk about an instant life-changing moment.
My gastroenterologist was happy that I came in right away, as they are seeing younger patients with colon cancer. We would let our two kids, parents and siblings know about the news that night.
Post-surgery, I learned that I had Stage 3(B) colon cancer. I started researching the stages of colon cancer. And, probably the scariest part is Googling your condition and seeing survival rates.
At that time, Stage 3(B) was showing a 50% survival rate. Today it’s mid-70%. I have since learned that most internet data is five years old, and surgeries and treatments have come a long way – changing survivability rates dramatically.
Don’t wait for colon cancer symptoms to appear
Colon cancer is the “quiet killer”. That’s because most people don’t experience any symptoms during the early stages, when the disease is most treatable.
Doctors estimated my golf ball-sized tumor had been growing for upwards of five or more years. I was lucky in that my colon cancer was still treatable when I started experiencing symptoms. I was just months from being Stage 4 where recovery rates are quite low.
I’ve learned that colon cancer can happen to anyone. And the best way to help protect yourself is to have regular colon cancer screenings. The latest guidance recommends that men and women start colon cancer screenings at age 45. But if you have certain risk factors, like a family history of the disease, your doctor may want you to start earlier.
Today, all of my friends get lectured about getting a colonoscopy if they haven’t gotten one. There’s also a quick and easy alternative called a fecal immunochemical test (FIT), which is a stool test you do at home each year.
Both tests are usually covered 100% by most insurance plans, even if you haven’t met your deductible. Screening guidelines sometimes change, so check with your insurance to confirm what’s covered.
Do you have HealthPartners insurance? Check your coverage here.
It really is true: Colonoscopies save lives
So, how many colonoscopies does it take to save one life? While there’s no easy calculation, there’s research that shows that for every colonoscopy performed, up to 170 days of life are saved. When you consider that about 19 million colonoscopies are performed annually, that’s a lot of years.
The bottom line? Colon cancer screening can save your life. It saved mine.
I am thankful they found my colon cancer when they did. Today I test clear with no evidence of disease, but neuropathy side effects from chemo remind me daily to monitor my health.