My Health Scare
I usually focus most of my attention on raising awareness of eating disorders and mental health in men; however, I’m shifting gears today and talking about another important topic that is still cloaked in stigma.
March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. This is a cause that hits close to home on multiple levels. As many of you already know, my dad died of colon cancer when I was only 11-years-old. By the time he finally went to the doctor, it was too late. The cancer had spread throughout his body and there was little that could be done. For years, I was mad at my father for not going to the doctor sooner. Why didn’t he get a routine colonoscopy done when he turned 50? Why didn’t he speak up as pain radiated from his back and more than likely blood was in his stool?
Following his death, the doctors told me that colon cancer runs in my family so I would need to monitor my health as I got older. They didn’t seem too concerned, however, because that’s an old person's disease.
Fast forward to 2014, I was 29 and life seemed to be going pretty darn well for a change. Matt and I were preparing to move in together. It seemed like a lot of the turbulence from my late teens and early twenties was finally settling down. Now comes the graphic part, but the part we have to talk about.
In the fall of 2014, I started noticing red streaks when I went to the bathroom. I didn’t think much of it. After all, I was 29 and in the prime of my life. The steaks continued on and off for several months, so I figured I’d bring them up at my annual physical in February just to be safe.
Upon telling my doctor of my symptoms and my family history with colon cancer, he decided it would be best to perform a colonoscopy. Again, just to be safe. The car ride home from that appointment was filled with anxiety. I’ve always battled health anxiety and the thought of a colonoscopy scared the hell out of me.
Less than two weeks later, I found myself preparing for my first scope. I remember scheduling a last-minute vet appointment to get the pups their vaccines because I didn’t want to burden Matt with that should I be dead in a few weeks. The prep is a challenge, but let me say it is much better than the alternative.
The doctor who performed my scope met with me for a few minutes prior to the 7:00 am procedure. He said it was more than likely hemorrhoids or a fissure. He didn’t seem too concerned because I was “a healthy young man.” This was again, just to be safe.
Well, I’m certainly glad we played it safe! I awoke from the procedure, which is a piece of cake. Do you want some good sleep? Get a colonoscopy! Anyway, as I woke up the doctor came in and informed Matt and me that he found three very large polyps in my colon. Some were bleeding which led to the streaks I was seeing. He said we would need to wait about a week for biopsy results to determine the next steps. My heart sank.
I’d spend the next week in a constant anxiety attack. I started planning my own funeral. It was impossible to focus on my classes, my boyfriend, or my life. I’d research colon cancer all day every day, only making myself more anxious.
One afternoon, the doctor called and asked me to come to his office to go over the results later that same day. I broke down in tears. My stomach flipped in knots. My body rattled like an earthquake. Matt rushed home from work and we headed to the doctor’s office.
“We’ve got good and bad news, Mr. Wood,” the doctor said. He went on to explain that these polyps were caught in time and were not cancerous; however, just a few more weeks and it would have been a different story. He advised that the type of polyps I had was the aggressive type and that I was now considered high-risk for colon cancer.
WHAT?! I’m only 29. That’s an old person’s disease? And yearly colonoscopies on top of that?
It was at that moment that I decided I would do everything I could to prevent colon cancer. I refused to die young and I refused to have the same fate as my father. That’s when I committed to changing my diet. Now, my food rules as they pertain to weight loss and caloric intake would be morphed into ensuring a healthy, clean, and preventative diet. Orthorexia entered the chat as I like to say.
But this post is not about orthorexia, it’s about raising awareness of colorectal cancer and breaking the stigma that exists.
Just like how we stereotype eating disorders, we stereotype other conditions like colon cancer. I’m here to say that it is not that old person’s disease we assume it is. After working with the Colorectal Cancer Alliance for a couple of years, I’ve seen it impact way too many young folks. In subsequent scopes, I’ve had nearly 30 (yes 30!) pre-cancerous polyps removed and I’m not even 40 yet. That’s why I’m happy to see the American Cancer Society lowered the recommended screening age to 45 for adults at average risk in 2018. Personally, I’d like to see go even lower but I may be a little biased.
People don’t like to talk about their behinds. It can be embarrassing to bring that up with friends, family, and even medical professionals. I think that’s why my dad suffered in silence for so long. It was difficult for me to talk about it with my doctor but I’m so glad I did. It was an awkward conversation that saved my life.