Commentary: Guard against colon cancer by getting that colonoscopy

The Sacramento BeeMarch 12, 2012 

I was 35 when I got my first colonoscopy in the harrowing weeks after my mother, Elodia Breton Martinez, died of colon cancer.

What a jewel she was: funny, fierce, loving and bighearted. I think of her every day and I'm haunted by the idea that she might have known her grandchildren had she only had a colonoscopy.

Mom was a prototype of the 1940s "Greatest Generation" in that she didn't dwell on her problems or complain about anything.

By the time she spoke up about her ailments, the tumor had grown too large and the surgery and chemotherapy proved too much for her to withstand.

Before dawn on June 26, 1998, with her distraught family at her side, Mom died at the age of 79. She had been so strong physically, yet that miserable disease took her just two months after being diagnosed.

I went off my rocker with grief for months, and in that haze of emotion, I rushed to a doctor in Citrus Heights and he humored me enough to perform a colonoscopy. He did so even though I was younger than the typical risk group – people 50 and over.

You hear all manner of horror stories and excuses by people afraid of the procedure.

The Cleveland Clinic describes it this way: "During a colonoscopy, an experienced physician uses a colonoscope (a long, flexible instrument about 1/2 inch in diameter) to view the lining of the colon. The colonoscope is inserted into the rectum and advanced through the large intestine."

If the thought of the procedure makes you too squeamish, you have famous company.

In the acclaimed HBO documentary "Lombardi," the legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi was shown conquering the macho world of pro football yet refusing a colonoscopy even as he doubled over with abdominal pain.

Lombardi was only 57 when he died of colon cancer in 1970. Yet all these years later, some of the NFL's greatest players and toughest guys still weep at his memory.

No death is as painful as one that is premature or preventable.

I'm here to tell you that the taboos surrounding colonoscopies are greatly exaggerated. You fast and use laxatives to purge your system. You go to the hospital, they sedate you and the procedure begins.

I fell into a soothing slumber and didn't awake until the procedure was done. Then my doctor told me I was OK, a moment of relief that was more than worth any pre-procedure anxiety.

My doc recommended another procedure in five years' time, which I did in 2003. Then I had another in 2008.

Next summer, after my 50th birthday, I'll go back for another.

Why go into this kind of detail? Why promote the fact that March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month?

Because having a colonoscopy is not a big deal. Because it can save your life.

Research in the current New England Journal of Medicine shows that colorectal cancer was cut by 53 percent in patients who had colonoscopies and had precancerous growths removed during the procedure. The journal tracked patients in their study over 20 years.

The New York Times called this "the best evidence yet that colonoscopy – perhaps the most unloved cancer screening test – prevents deaths."

This month, the Colon Cancer Alliance – www.ccalliance.org – will be promoting events nationwide to raise awareness. This included Sacramento's Undy 5000, a 5K run that took place in Land Park on Saturday.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 143,460 people will be diagnosed with colon cancer in 2012 and that 51,690 in the United States will die from it. If it's caught early before it spreads, 90 percent of those diagnosed with this cancer live more than five years.

In our family, the grandkids began arriving 5 1/2 years after Mom died.

Talk to your doctor about a colonoscopy, if only for the memories you might miss by putting one off.

My mom would have been in the delivery room when her grandchildren were born. She wasn't around to see their first steps, hear their first words, witness their first day of school.

With a slow moving cancer, a colonoscopy would have bought her time and her family immeasurable joy.

What are you waiting for?

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