Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Cancer and Colonoscopy

As I’ve been filling in medical questionnaires recently, I’ve had to reflect on a singularly disturbing feature of my family medical history. Every death on my father’s side of the family seems to have been as a direct result of cancer. There was lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, bladder cancer, prostate cancer, and so on. The procedure I’m preparing for is called a colonoscopy and is intended to discover whether I have colon cancer.

A family predisposition to cancer is only one reason why the procedure is used. Polyps, colitis, diverticulosis and diverticulitis, bleeding lesions, anemia, and a whole host of other symptoms can also be sufficient reasons why a gastroenterologist might make the recommendation. Colonoscopy is useful as both a diagnostic tool and a means whereby immediate treatment is conducted, including removal of polyps using electrocautery, injection of medicines into the lining of the colon, removal of tissue for biopsies, or a simple determination of the best site for subsequent surgery. None of this sounds appealing.

I find myself apprehensive and curious, perhaps not as worried as my family physician thinks I should be. Given my family medical history and how many people are diagnosed each year with colorectal cancer, I should be more worried than I am (about 150,000 in the United States will be told they have colorectal cancer in 2005). Certainly, of new cancers discovered each year, colorectal cancer is only surpassed by lung cancer. This year alone, up to 57,000 people will die of colorectal cancer. Of those diagnosed and those who die, most will have had no knowledge that they were at risk. Those are good enough reasons to be concerned; but, in addition, I have two of the most significant symptoms mentioned – change in bowel habits, and blood in the stool (for more information, see WebMD Health).

Next week by this time, the procedure will be over, I’ll be getting news on what was found, and I will be thinking about next steps. Maybe I’ll be more worried, maybe less.

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