In the past I’ve raised money via movember for depression and prostate cancer, but there’s another form of cancer that I haven’t mentioned before, at least here: bowel cancer.
Second biggest cancer killer in Australia: 1 in 12 Australians will be diagnosed with it by age 85, it’s a big deal. But we don’t talk about it because it’s an uncomfortable subject.
There are a few ways to screen for bowel cancer. The scariest sounding one, though is a colonoscopy. I had to have one very recently, and I want to talk a little bit about what it was like to prepare for one, and what it was like afterward – I couldn’t find much online that was written in a blogging tone of voice.
The biggest problem with preparing for something like this is that you don’t know what to expect. When you find out that you need a colonoscopy, you talk to a surgeon, fill in some hospital admissions paperwork, and then it’s time to buy a “colon prep kit”. This (mine was $12.50) is a clear plastic bag with an instruction sheet and 3 sachets of powder.
Talk to people who have had the procedure (if you can find any) and you’ll hear fairly non-specific stories about how unpleasant the “cleansing procedure” is.
Let me walk through it, as I experienced it. It starts two days before the procedure with a heavily restricted diet. Breakfast was dry white toast.
Lunch was more interesting (and this was at work) – baked potato and pumpkin with steamed fish and some (bleh) cottage cheese. A little more flavour than the toast, especially with the pumpkin.
For afternoon tea, jelly. I also had some black coffee and black tea during the day in meetings.
Dinner was more of the same, with a glass of apple juice.
And then, that’s it for day one. Day two (the day before the procedure) is a liquid-only diet. Sports drinks, slurpees, soft drink, jelly, chicken stock, and lots of water.
Then, at 5pm the night of day two (the night before the procedure), the cleanse begins. At 5pm and 7pm I had to drink a glass of this stuff: picolax. It’s a powder that really fizzes up when it hits water, and it has a lemon flavour to it.
Pro-tip: mix it up in a large glass, so there’s room to accommodate the fizzing. According to the instructions, it will be up to 3 hours after you drink this when you first need to run to the bathroom. For me, it was more like 25 minutes.
This stuff, the colonlytely, you’ll need to have prepared in advance, and kept cold. It’s not unpleasant tasting, but it has an odd gluey texture. The instructions recommend drinking it through a straw, and it’s good advice – drink it out of the glass and it will coat your tastebuds.
You need to drink one of these glasses every 15 minutes, and you’ll likely spend most of that hour sitting on the toilet: I did. You’ll not want to be too many steps from a bathroom for the time you won’t be there.
One more pro-tip: if you have a baby in the house, you’ll already have baby wipes and nappy cream handy – you might like to swallow your pride and apply them to the relevant region to avoid any soreness or burning sensation.
7pm and it’s another dose of the picolax, and then as many trips to the bathroom as you need before bed. If you have a morning procedure booked, it’s nil by mouth from midnight, and then an early start to head to hospital.
I checked in to the hospital in the peri-operative unit, everyone I spoke to asked me the same questions (this is to make sure there are no mix-ups). Once admitted, I was given little hospital bracelets, they took my blood pressure, and it was time to wait again.
The next time they called my name, it was time to change into a hospital gown, with paper shoes and underpants (and a pink plastic bag to put my effects in, which is then stored in a locker to be handed back to you when you wake up).
Then I was shown the way to a trolley bed. I walked over, and lay down, and then spoke to a couple of other nurses before an orderly (I think) wheeled me to the operating theatre. Being wheeled in a bed is a lot like watching a Kubrick movie.
An operating theatre has an annex where a wheeled bed can be surrounded by people: it was here that the only painful thing (apart from some pain from excess use of the bathroom) took place – having the canular put in. The anaesthetist said “sharp scratch” and it was done.
From there, it was into theatre, lying on my side, and then they put me to sleep. When I woke up, I was back in recovery (a space in the hospital where the beds are stored after surgery while the patients wake up). They gave me a glass of water to drink, asked me to get dressed when I was ready (I was still a little dizzy from the anaesthetic), and then I sat in the patient lounge waiting for someone to come and pick me up.
You’re not meant to drive (or ride a bike) for 24 hours after having the anaesthetic, and as such they won’t let you leave until someone picks you up. All told, I spent more
time waiting for the different steps of the time in hospital than the procedure itself took (the latter was about 40 minutes, I think), and when I woke up, apart from my throat feeling a bit scratchy, I wasn’t in any pain.
In the patient lounge, you can eat simple food again, and drink tea, coffee and water while you wait. They may even have sandwiches – I took it easy on the food and waited until I was back home.
If you’re in the situation where you’re trying to avoid having a colonoscopy because you think it will be unbearable, or you’re stressed about the unknown, I hope this helps you decide to go ahead with it. Early detection of bowel cancer makes a big difference to the success rate of treatment.