Last year in this very issue, the Top Doc extravaganza, I wrote a cheeky column about getting my first colonoscopy. I was pretty, pretty proud of myself for being guilted into finally taking the plunge(r). I am Generation Colonoscopy, I declared, representing the Over 50 Crowd who engages in endless graphic discussions about health issues. I wrote that our motto is, “The prep is worse than the procedure.” Empowered and overconfident, I strolled into the gastroenterologist’s lair and emerged triumphant and a few pounds lighter. As the magazine went to print, I believed I had conquered the colonoscopy.
A week later, I was diagnosed with colon cancer.
If you’re wondering what it would be like to get that call on a random Monday night, wonder no more! Because living through a pandemic/economic collapse is eerily similar to the shock-and-limbo of a cancer diagnosis. Life or death situation? Check. Putting all your plans on hold indefinitely and living on a mysterious timeline controlled by medical tests, food deliveries, and meditation apps? Check. Tons of sketchy, unsolicited advice from flat-earthers who have no medical training? Check. Throw in a lot of blood draws, learning a whole new vocabulary, and harboring resentment about the hand you’ve been dealt (I’ve never smoked! I grow my own kale! I don’t even like Spam or other processed meats!) and you’re right where I was in August 2019.
But fortunately, I live in a place where there are Top Docs. And Top Nurses. And Top Techs, Top Oncology Nutritionists, and Top Medical Office Staff Who Are Super Duper Nice to Patients with Cancer. Trust me, it’s Top Health Care here in the San Gabriel Valley. Six weeks after diagnosis, I went in for surgery and had a boatload of my large intestine removed, along with a half dozen lymph nodes. First off, colon surgery prep makes the colonoscopy prep look like child’s play. Secondly, rolling down the hallway into that sterile surgical suite while staring at the ceiling was like every medical movie ever. Thirdly, I don’t recall because that’s when the really good drugs kicked in.
Long story short, I am currently NED—no evidence of disease. (That’s the medically correct term for “cancer-free.”) I survived the surgery, several CT scans, a year of appointments with a variety of doctors, a scary trip to the ER, another biopsy, a pandemic, a virtual book tour, many supportive yoga classes, phone calls and cards, months on a low-fiber diet, a trip to the DMV, and finally, another colonoscopy this July that came back “clean as a whistle.”
I see you, 2020, but I don’t fear you.
There’s nothing funny about cancer. I’m a big believer in the adage “everything is material,” but even I struggled to find the laughs. When the gastroenterologist told me that my prognosis would be much grimmer if I had procrastinated another six months, I cried. When I got off the elevator on the oncology floor for the first time, I cried. When the checker at the grocery store was kind to me after a tough appointment, I cried. When my gynecologist told me that her mom died of colon cancer and she wasn’t going to let that happen to me, I cried. And when the surgeon told me I wouldn’t need any follow-up chemo or radiation because they got it all, I cried. See? Very dehydrating, but not funny.
But in between the tears, I thought a lot about access to these Top Doctors. During every step of my treatment, I realized how lucky I was to have access to good health care. It’s impossible to imagine navigating a cancer diagnosis without access to: good health insurance; coordinated care by multiple doctors; a computer, a cell phone, and Wi-Fi; knowledge of English; days off from work or paid medical leave; extra cash on hand for extra expenses; and a support system of family and friends. Even finding somebody to take the day off of work to be your mandatory ride home from a colonoscopy appointment could be a barrier to good health. (No Ubering home allowed.) For many, the journey ends before it begins. That’s not right.
Colon cancer is preventable, treatable, and beatable with early detection. For me, it’s one year down, four more to go before I can put the hashtag #cancersurvivor in my Insta profile. In the meantime, I’m the self-appointed Generation Colonoscopy Spokespatient. My first order of business is to change the messaging. Get over the prep and get the procedure. Please speak to your Top Doc about making an appointment. Here’s my Top Take-Away: colonoscopies save lives. Like mine.