Sharing what’s on his mind is what Portland Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz does for a living. Sometimes though, it takes more than words to get people to pay attention. Telling everyone over 50, for instance, that they really need to have a colonoscopy. It can prevent colon cancer.
You know you should schedule one, but you’ve heard that the stuff you have to drink for the prep is awful and that you never get to bed because you’re on the toilet all night long. And when the doctor moves that scope around inside you it hurts like hell. So, instead of making the appointment, you procrastinate.
Well Bill, who’s 58, had his first colonoscopy about seven years ago and thought it wasn’t bad at all. When he had his second one this week, he graciously allowed a few people along, myself included, to document his experience.
“Why not?” he replied when we asked. “I can demonstrate that it’s not the big deal that some people might think it is. I’m hoping that there’s someone out there who will [see] this and turn to his or her significant other and say, ‘If he did it, why can’t you?’ And if that prevents one case of colon or rectal cancer, this is worth it one hundredfold.”
What none of us expected as we chatted before the procedure was that it might be his own life that he saved.
Just moments after he inserted the scope, Dr. James Morse, a physician at Portland Gastroenterology, spotted a polyp. Polyps can turn into colon cancer, specifically ones called adenomas. They don’t all become cancerous, but all colon cancers start out as polyps, which is why they must be removed. “We don’t know which adenomatous polyps will become cancers and which ones will not,” explained Dr. Morse, “so we don’t want to leave any behind. By removing them all we don’t give any polyps a chance to become cancerous.”
Before he removed the polyp Dr. Morse looked at the entire length of Bill’s colon and all of us, including Bill, got to watch on the television monitor. Pristine. The prep he took the night before did the job. About that prep. People dread it more than the colonoscopy admitted Dr. Morse. Bill’s take on it: “The night before is the toughest part, I think. The prep is basically a powder substance that you mix with 64 ounces of Gatorade and drink in about two hours. It’s not a big deal. I was not up all night.”
Remember. If Bill can do it, why can’t you?
As Dr. Morse snaked the scope up and around Bill’s colon, there were a few little corners and turns he had to maneuver. Bill said he didn’t feel a thing. The nurse had given him a mild sedative before things got underway and it obviously worked just fine. Sometimes, people don’t even remember the procedure at all. Those of us who are telling Bill’s story are making sure that he doesn’t forget anything!
After declaring that the rest of his colon was fine, Dr. Morse removed the polyp with a loop of wire. “It’s called a snare,” he said, “and it has electrocautery electricity going through it. We put it around the polyp and use it not only to remove the polyp, but also to cauterize the site so there’s no bleeding.”
The polyp will be sent to the lab to see if it is indeed the type that might have turned into colon cancer if Bill had decided never to have another colonoscopy. Dr. Sheila Pinnette, head of the Maine CDC, stopped by before Bill’s procedure got underway. She said that as public figure, Bill can serve as a role model of sorts, and she emphasized the importance of colorectal screening. “We recommend that you start colorectal screening at age 50,” she stressed. “It saves lives. An ounce of prevention can save a life.”
It certainly may have saved Bill’s life. “We found a polyp,” said Dr. Morse. “That’s always a good thing in my mind because that’s a potential colon cancer prevented. The most common symptom of a polyp is no symptoms, so unless you’re having a procedure, you wouldn’t know you had one. That’s why we really promote colonoscopy as one of the best tests for preventing colon cancer.”
Resting somewhat comfortably a few minutes after Dr. Morse had removed the polyp and the scope, Bill was reflective and also apologetic. “I have a lot of gas,” he confessed, “but we’re all friends here.”
Gas is inevitable after a colonoscopy because the doctor pumps air into the intestines in order to see better. But what’s a little gas when the reward is so great. Bill had a polyp and now it’s gone. “I think that’s a good thing, because this is where the cancer develops. There’s always that thing in the back of your mind, oh, my goodness, what if they find something. And they did, and it’s no big deal. I’ll do anything I can to encourage people to do this and show it’s not the big deal that many people think it is. The payoffs are enormous so, yes, I think this is a message worth pounding away at. Maybe we’ll even get the governor to do it!”
How about it all of you people who have turned 50? Will you follow in Bill’s footsteps and schedule your colonoscopy? If you want more information about colon cancer or don’t have health insurance and need financial help, visit the ScreenMe! web site, a project of the Maine CDC’s Colorectal Cancer Control Program. While you’re at it, check out Nona’s story. She’s a colon cancer survivor.
Finally, thank you Bill, for sharing your experience. You may have saved quite a few lives.