Compared to all the crap my friend Tracey has been enduring in her cancer fight, my decision to have a drug free colonoscopy seemed, well.. kind of funny. Even when I had to don a diaper the night before the procedure, I found myself laughing–the silver lining being that my forty-six year old ass could even fit into a Huggie’s Pull Up.
Nearly all colonoscopies are performed under anesthesia–Versed to make you sleepy, Fentanyl to make you floaty. But I was going to visit Tracey right afterwards and needed full intellectual and emotional power, so I chose Awake and Sober instead. When the nurses wheeled me into the operating room in a blue gown, hair net, and booties, I flashed back to my last colonoscopy in 2006. That time, I had a shoot for the television show C.S.I.immediately after the procedure. So I went in cold turkey then too, fearing even a little valium might make me slur my lines in front of George Eads.
“You sure you don’t want any drugs, honey?” asked Dr. Sherman, who had the same kindly, professional face as Marcus Welby, M.D.
“Are you sure?” asked his out-of-work anesthesiologist.
“Are you CRAZY?” asked Robbie, the male nurse whose hand I would be crushing the moment Dr. Sherman snaked that camera up my butt.
“Look,” I told them, fearless as a honey badger trying to catch a cobra. “If Katie Couric can get scoped on national TV, I can do it without drugs.”
Now, to all of you snickering, “Thank God I don’t have to do this!” I say, “YOU WILL!” The American Cancer Society recommends starting colonoscopies at the age of fifty (I started early since colon cancer nearly ended my mother’s life at the age of thirty-eight). This
inevitable pain in the ass is coming, so here’s a warning: the night-before preparation makes the actual exam feel like a Swedish massage. This uncomfortable, embarrassing, necessary protocol—thirty-six hours of fasting along with a colon cleanse that works like Drain-O—was why I was wearing a toddler’s Pull Up in the first place.
Beginning thirteen hours before a colonoscopy, patients must spring clean the colon by swallowing a series of pills that taste like the bottom of a mud flat. I did this at my friend Cynthia’s house, figuring I could get some visiting done in between bathroom runs. Cynthia and I drank a little wine (my doctor’s list of acceptable fluids specified white grape juice!) while I waited for whatever was left in my bowels after fasting for twenty-four hours to get the hell out. Slowly, my abdomen swelled like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man’s, but nothing else moved. After two hours of waiting, I had to get my kids to bed! So I borrowed the Pull Up from Cynthia’s three year old, buckled Griff and Ado into the car, and prayed I would make it home before the deluge began. I was zooming down Wilshire Boulevard when my cell phone rang.
“Hi, this is Bernie, Dr. Sherman’s nurse,” said a deep, male voice, tinged with a Spanish accent. “Everything going O.K.?”
I wanted to say that other than wearing a diaper and feeling like a pregnant elephant, life was just great! But I settled with the news that the pills weren’t working.
“Don’t worry,” soothed Bernie. “They’ll work. Just give ‘em time.” And sure enough, they did.
That night was brutal. I was up at least twenty times– fifteen to run to the bathroom, three to tend to my kids, and twice to make Ethan stop snoring. My husband had played thirty-six holes of golf that day in Palm Desert, poor little dear, and he was tuckered out. By 5a.m. I was so exhausted, dehydrated and hungry, I could only manage a weak kick when his snoring started again. By 7a.m. I was at the surgery center.
A colonoscopy takes about twenty minutes. And only about five of those minutes are truly painful, when a
colonoscope the width of an index finger is maneuvered into the upper reaches of your intestine. To facilitate this wrong way advance, the doctor pumps air into the colon, inflating it like a balloon.
“Don’t be afraid to let it out,” said Dr. Sherman, during a particularly agonizing moment.
“Arrrrrghhhrrrrrrrrrrowwwwww!” I replied, worried more about the fact that I had a color video camera with a wide-angle lens up my butt than I was about passing gas.
“You want some painkiller?” Sherman asked, an I.V. drip already in my arm in case of emergency. The offer was tempting, but then I thought about Tracey. In a ridiculous rush of solidarity, I declined and instead tried to imagine Dr. Sherman in his underwear.
When the pain abated enough so I could raise my head, I peeked at the video monitor. My colon was pretty!–clean, pink, and decorated with delicate blood vessels. I was admiring it when Dr. Sherman’s little mechanical
eye suddenly paused near something that looked like a small speed bump.
“Holy crap!” I said. “Is that a polyp?” A polyp is an abnormal growth that can kill you. My mom’s doctors found 107 of them growing in her colon during her first scope.
“Yes, dear, just a small one,” Sherman answered. “Nothing to worry about.” I was relieved until I saw a small metal alligator with sharp metal teeth creeping across the video screen toward the bump, jaws gaping.
“Um… Hey!” I yelped. “Wait a minute… What are you…” Snap! The nasty little roach clip clicked shut and yanked. I flinched, but there was no pain.
“Polyps don’t have nerve endings, dear,” said Dr. Sherman. And with that, the colonoscopy was over.
I’ve been accused of being stubborn. I’ve accused myself of being stupid. But by noon I was sitting next to Tracey on her living room couch, my gut a bit sore but my mind completely clear. When I mentioned how I’d spent my morning, Tracey smiled and handed me her morphine lollipop, a white stick with a little blob of Fentanyl left on the top. I took a few licks, and we laughed about how in our twenties, we would have taken that lollipop straight to Vegas for a night of boozing and boy chasing. For a moment, the silliness of the Pull Up, the roach clip, and Marcus Welby, M.D. chased the specter of my friend’s disease away, and I could handle a thousand cold turkey colonoscopies if only that would keep her cancer from coming back.