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What It’s Like Getting a Colonoscopy in Your 20s
A month ago I wouldn’t have been able to write about this — not just because I had no clear-cut answers on what exactly was going on with my body, but because my anxiety had me nearly inconsolable.
There’s been a lot in the news lately about how colon and rectal cancers — two conditions primarily found in the 50-plus crowd — are on the rise in adults as young as their 20s. And not just a small boost — today, someone born in 1990 has double the risk of colon cancer and triple the risk of rectal cancer compared to someone born in 1950 when they were the same age, according to Rebecca Seigel, lead author of the new report published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, in a recent New York Times article.
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The Beginning of (What I Thought Was) My End
I began to see blood in my stool in August 2016. If it’s not menstrual, it’s always a shock to see red-stained toilet paper, but I forced myself to consider the facts: I was super stressed (a new job, an on-again-off-again pseudo-relationship); I had been working out daily, prepping for my sister’s wedding, and sweating a lot; I ate a mainly vegetarian diet; and I only drank water when it felt absolutely necessary (unless you want to generously count my three daily coffees toward that tally). Everything justified constipation, which I thought was probably causing hemorrhoids.
The bleeding kept up off and on — but definitely more on than off. Still, I pushed it to the back of my mind and went on with my daily life. Then, in January, seemingly overnight, the amount of blood and my bowel movements drastically increased. (Screw coyness — It was a scary amount of blood.) I like to think I’m pretty in-tune with my body, and I knew something was not right.
I quickly made an appointment at the on-site wellness center at work. I was reprimanded for waiting so long to see a doctor (which, yes, great, thanks), but without the proper equipment, I couldn’t get any conclusive answers. So I headed straight to the closest urgent care center, where the physician performed a rectal exam and diagnosed me, tentatively, with fissures (a.k.a. small tears in the rectal lining); but without a more comprehensive screening of my insides, nothing was concrete. I was prescribed laxatives and referred to a gastroenterologist — I made an appointment for the following week.
My non-fatal (though preliminary) diagnosis should’ve eased my mind, but by then, all logic had gone out the window. I’m a naturally anxious and emotional person whose curiosity is unyielding (it’s why I spent five years and tens of thousands of dollars going to school for journalism), so I did exactly what I shouldn’t have: I Googled my symptoms. The first thing that popped up was hemorrhoids; then came fissures; third on the list was colon cancer. I panicked, but, of course, kept reading.
Soon I had convinced myself I had all the typical symptoms of colorectal cancer: abdominal cramping (Now that you mention it, I am a little uncomfortable); weight loss (My jeans are fitting a little looser …); anemia (Am I dizzy? I have lost a lot of blood). By the time I made it to my gastroenterologist appointment, I was a mess.
The Persisting Fear
The GI doctor ruled out fissures and external hemorrhoids, but believed the internal kind could be the source of the bleeding. She was also concerned about an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s; colorectal cancer was the last possibility. She instructed me to keep up the laxatives and evaluate myself in two weeks; if the bleeding persisted, I could then get a colonoscopy for a more thorough diagnosis.
I scheduled the procedure for February 13 — a Monday, which allowed for a Sunday prep day. In the weeks leading up to my colonoscopy, I walked around with a death sentence clinging to my back. I had already decided I had cancer. Various websites confirmed it for me, as did first-person stories of being diagnosed at a young age. I confided in a select few people — my executive editor, my closest coworker, my best friend — but my parents got the brunt of it.
I was in full-on panic attack mode. I cried at work, on the subway, at the gym. (Yes, I was still working out — I needed at least one constant in my life!) I wasn’t making plans, I barely kept in touch with friends, I wasn’t even mourning the guy who just a month earlier had broken my heart. I put myself on mute.
The day before my colonoscopy, I had to drink just over a gallon of a solution called GoLYTELY (I assume it’s pronounced “go lightly,” [insert grimace here]. It’s meant to empty the bowels — like a juice cleanse on steroids. I started at 4 p.m., gulping down 8 ounces every 20 minutes until it was all gone. Full disclosure: Despite mixing the salty solution with Crystal Light lemonade mix (pro-tip!), I stopped 16 ounces shy — my body just said, NOPE! But despite the horror stories I read online (notice a pattern here?), it wasn’t the worst Sunday I’ve had. I went to bed empty of everything, save for anxiety and fear.
My parents and I taxied to the hospital at 6:30 a.m., and I was escorted to my hospital bed. At 28, I’ve been lucky to never need major surgery, and so sitting in a gown, hooked up to an IV, waiting for a procedure during which I’d be under general anesthesia, was totally new and terrifying. The last thing I remember was panicking because my entire body felt like it had been numbed by a dentist who was a little too liberal with the Novocain.
I woke up as I was being wheeled back to the recovery room and heard the words “biopsy,” but some lingering anesthetic must have prevented a major panic attack. “Do I have cancer?” were the first words I muttered as soon as the doctor came by. “No,” she said. I did, however, have something called proctitis — a.k.a. inflammation of the rectal lining — and, yes, a few internal hemorrhoids. She’d taken a biopsy to confirm whether it was a one-off thing or something chronic, like IBD.
The Life Lesson
In health editing, and journalism in general, we look for the most attention-grabbing stuff — stories of dramatic weight-loss, overcoming inconceivable odds, and ultimately, diseases that strike even the healthiest people out of nowhere. But here’s the thing: Those stories, as inspiring, helpful, and informative as they can be, tend to represent the exception to the rule. Yes, seeking out professional medical advice as soon as you notice something out of whack is paramount to your health, but Googling your symptoms and sending yourself into an anxiety-fueled tailspin is not.
If something’s wrong, get it checked; and if that diagnosis doesn’t sit well, get another — but don’t play your own doctor, and don’t let the experiences of others scare you out of taking care of yourself.