It’s standard practice in Australia to receive a government funded bowel test kit when you turn fifty. My kit turned up in the post within a week or so of my birthday. I duly put it aside thinking I’ll get around to it some time. After all, there is no bowel cancer history in my immediate family and I have had a healthy vegetarian diet all my life. I can imagine myself getting all sort of illnesses in my latter years, but bowel cancer is a long way down the list.
It was nearly three months before I eventually opened the kit and did the two faecal tests. I was so blasé about the whole thing that I actually threw out all the paperwork that came with the kit as soon as I sent my samples off to the lab. So you can imagine my absolute surprise (and horror) when I got a call from my GP two weeks later asking me to make an appointment to discuss the test results.
It turned out that both of my samples tested positive for blood and I was booked in for a colonoscopy before I could even adequately consult Dr Google for alternative advice. There was then a week of waiting before my surgery day and this gave me plenty of time to allow all the worst case scenarios race through my mind. Of course I was struggling not to imagine that I may have bowel cancer. The letter I received stated in a very matter of fact way that a positive test result “may not mean that you have cancer”. I found this phrase particularly not-reassuring and suggest that whoever wrote it undertake some diplomacy training.
Two days before the colonoscopy I had to commence a low fibre diet which pretty much consisted of white bread, cottage cheese, eggs and low fat yoghurt with honey (foods I don’t usually eat often). By lunchtime the day before I had to stop eating solid food completely and was only allowed clear fluids. The real fun started at 5 pm when the bowel cleanse process began in earnest. I had to drink a strong laxative formula called PicoPrep on the hour for three hours, followed by plenty of water to flush everything through. Chilling the prep drink in advance really helped, but by the third glass it became pretty hard to swallow.
About 45 minutes after the first prep drink the toilet fun started. And it didn’t really stop until close to midnight when I was nil by mouth until after the procedure was complete. The toilet visits became more frequent as the night wore on and my poor bottom became increasingly sore. Think the feeling you get in your rear end the day after a very spicy curry, and multiply it by about ten! I was very grateful for soft toilet paper and wet wipes.
The colonoscopy itself was a walk in the park compared to the cleansing experience. I was heavily sedated for the procedure and not aware of a thing. The last thing I remember is the anaesthetist injecting the sedative and then I woke up in the recovery area. Apparently it took about half an hour. My Dr came to see me not long after and told me that all went well and he removed two small polyps which were most likely the reason for the bleeding.
The polyps went off to the lab for biopsy and at my follow up appointment two weeks later I was told that they were pre-cancerous. In other words, cell changes were detected which if they had been left may have turned into cancer. I was shocked by this news. And very relieved to have done the faecal blood test, had the colonoscopy and had the polyps removed.
I’m now on the colonoscopy merry-go-round and will be recalled in another 3 years to go through it all again. This has got me thinking about some of the stats relating to positive faecal test results, polyps and bowel cancer. Preventative screening is a great thing and we are very lucky in Australia to be provided with the service at no cost. I will be encouraging all my friends over the age of 50 to complete their test kits and not be one of the 6 in every 10 that does not bother.
- All Australians over the age of 50 are sent a Faecal Occult Blood Test kit. A repeat test kit is sent every two years until age 74. Only 4 in 10 people bother to do the test.
- 1 in 14 people have a positive faecal bowel test result – blood in their sample.
- Bleeding may be caused by a number of conditions, including polyps, hemorrhoids, inflammation and cancer.
- A positive result means approximately 5% chance of cancer.
- Colonoscopy can miss up to 15% of growths that are less than 1 cm.
- If cancer is found during a colonoscopy and has not spread there is a 90% chance of cure.
- Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world and approximately one in 23 people will develop it in their lifetime.
Resources and links for further reading: