Guest Commentary

A tale about one of life's mid-term exams

If there was a rule book for mid-life crises, I wonder if it would require a test for colorectal cancer.

Of course, if men followed this particular rule, there would be so many appointments pending that you couldn't get a colonoscopy for years. In my own case, it only took a week to schedule. An ominous sign. A more ominous sign is the number of deaths each year from colon cancer, notwithstanding Katie Couric's highly publicized experience. So I was determined to go through with it, and maybe skip the chapter about buying a red Corvette.

Naturally enough, this subject is unappealing to most people.

Nevermind contemplating actually taking the test itself. Most men are reluctant to visit doctors at all, much less have someone insert a probe where the sun doesn't shine. In the rule book most doctors carry, though, men should be urged to get tested every five or 10 years, starting at age 50, or earlier if there's colon cancer in one's family history.

While women are more likely to take the test--simply because they're more likely to visit doctors in the first place--men left on their own usually wait until they see blood, or possibly the Angel of Death flapping wings in their nightmares and waking them with severe abdominal pains. By then, of course, it's usually too late. Then the red Corvette goes up for sale, along with their complete vinyl collection of '70s and '80s hits on eBay.

Declining sedation for my own test, I witnessed the procedure while lying on my side, looking up at a TV monitor. It was like watching a cave explorer descending into an unexplored passage, with odd sudden twists and turns in direction. What mysteries lay ahead? None too surprising, I hoped.

There was some pain, particularly when a sharp turn required pressure on the scope. But the withdrawal of the high-tech instrument went easily, after it removed two small polyps that might have developed into cancer had I not taken the test. "Who knows?" the doctor told me. "Better safe than sorry." Then he congratulated me for doing the procedure without medication, which is something only a small percentage choose.

Cost? About $1,800 without insurance, or about a $75 co-pay, depending on the insurance, plus two consultations, one before and one after. After it was over, they gave me an information sheet to read, advising a low-fat, high-fiber diet. They give this sheet to everyone who takes the test, regardless of weight or eating habits. There's no discrimination here--cancer certainly doesn't care who you are, but it does care if you eat burgers and fries all the time. Then it is all too willing to discriminate against you and move in for the kill. So what's the true cost of that Big Mac or Whopper in this case? A lot more than what appears on some illuminated plastic sign; you can bet your life on that.

They say, given good lab tests on my removed polyps, I've got five years before I need to take the test again. Am I looking forward to it? Not really. But I'm not afraid anymore, and that's what it's all about: peace of mind. I'm sure I'll be reading food labels more in the future, with their fine print now required by law, telling us about all the chemicals and trans-fats they use to keep things on the shelves longer while playing Wheel of Fortune with our genes.

And while I'm reading labels, I think I'll dispose of my TV, too, with its endless fast-food commercials and sports stars pitching soda to borderline diabetic kids. Instead, I'll go on a walk with my Walkman, playing things like the audiobook Don't Eat This Book, written and read by Morgan Spurlock, producer of the movie Super Size Me, about eating himself sick at McDonald's for a McMonth.

By the way, how old is Ronald McDonald now? You reckon he's due for another good probing?

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