I looked at the monitor and couldn’t believe what I saw. I had taken my husband to ProMedica Toledo Hospital’s emergency room because he was in excruciating pain and it was a Sunday. His doctor’s office was closed. Luckily his doctor, gastroenterologist Kevin Koffel, MD, was making rounds at the hospital and told him to come in immediately for a colonoscopy. It wasn’t his first; Tom had dealt with ulcerative colitis (UC) for many years.
UC is a chronic disease that causes tiny ulcers and abscesses in the colon and rectum, which flare up periodically and cause bloody stools and diarrhea. UC also causes severe abdominal pain. Imagine an open wound on your skin and how it would feel if someone poured vinegar or lemon juice on it. That’s how UC patients describe their pain…but it’s on the inside of their bodies.
Usually Tom was able to treat these flare-ups with short-term steroids, but due to a recent surgery, he wasn’t allowed to take them at this time. The doctor invited me in the procedure room to see what he was seeing. It looked like someone had taken a razor blade and made dozens of cuts along Tom’s large intestine. “It’s amazing that he’s been able to take the pain for this long,” Dr. Koffel said. “I really think we have to take it out.”
Remove his colon?
How can you eat and process food without a colon?
Isn’t that the “holding tank” of your digestive system?
As it turns out, you can live a perfectly normal life without one. Some people have their colons removed and live with ileostomies, a procedure where a doctor makes a small opening in the abdomen and stools pass through that opening and collect in an external pouch which is worn at all times, and emptied as needed.
The procedure Tom went through was called an ileal pouch anal anastomosis (IPAA), commonly called a pelvic pouch. In this procedure, doctors remove the colon, and then use the small intestine to form an internal “holding tank” called a “J-pouch” which is connected directly to the anus, and allows the patient to go to the bathroom normally.
Of course, no one would choose to lose a major organ, but Tom is happy he no longer has to worry about those UC flare-ups that caused such debilitating pain. One other major benefit: He no longer has to worry about colon cancer. People with UC are at a higher risk for colon cancer, but with no colon, there’s no risk of colon cancer.
Colons and colonoscopies are (excuse me please) the “butts” of many jokes like, “Did you hear about the constipated accountant? He couldn’t budget!” Get it? But colon cancer is no joke. It’s the second leading cause of cancer-related death in men and women combined. That’s why colonoscopies are so important. When caught early, 90% of colon cancer cases are curable.
Because colorectal cancer does not exhibit any symptoms in its early stages, you can feel perfectly healthy while polyps grow into cancer and obstruct the large intestine. That’s why you should start colon screenings at age 50 — even if you feel fine. Colonoscopy can detect and remove polyps before they grow into cancer.
I’m not quite 50 yet, but I did have my first colonoscopy a few months ago. The worst part? Several hours before the procedure, you have to drink this “prep” mixture that, well… cleans you out. I was placing bets that I had the cleanest colon Dr. Koffel had ever seen! I was telling him as much as they were getting me ready for the procedure and the next thing I knew, they were waking me up and telling me I had a clean bill of health. I missed the whole thing!
So make your appointment and take charge of your health. Getting a colonoscopy may make you the “butt” of a joke or two, but sometimes, laughter is the best medicine!
For 20 years, Chrys Peterson was the face of WTOL news, anchoring the 5, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts. She is now a correspondent for ProMedica HealthConnect and spokeswoman for Friends for Life, a monthly newsletter for women that offers health and wellness advice with a focus on cancer prevention.