March 6, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Public colonoscopy has happy ending

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

An occupational hazard in my line of work is that people occasionally claim you've got your head up your butt.

click image to enlarge

Portland Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz underwent a colonoscopy at the Portland Gastroenterology Center on Tuesday, March 5, 2013, to bring attention to Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Performing the procedure, from left, is Dr. James Morse, and endoscopic technician Ben Emery.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

Well, as of today, I can categorically say that's not true. And if you don't believe me, just ask Dr. Jim Morse.

"Everything went great," said Morse, a physician at Portland Gastroenterology Center, after spending just over 20 minutes Tuesday looking around that place where the moon don't shine. "We didn't find Elvis."

Allow me to explain.

Last week, as I sat at my desk minding my own business, the phone rang. It was Meredith Strang Burgess, owner of Burgess Advertising, calling on behalf of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

"March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month," she told me. "And we're thinking of getting someone well known in the community to have a colonoscopy and have Kim Block report on it for WGME to encourage other people to get one."

"Great idea!" I thought, my inner journalist waiting for the part where she asks me to write about it. "Whom do you have in mind?"

"You," she replied.

"Bad idea!" warned my inner journalist. "REALLY bad idea!"

Except it wasn't.

I know a lot about cancer. My younger sister and my older sister both died of it. So did my dad.

And since 2003, I've been living with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a slow-moving blood/bone marrow disorder that hasn't caused me any real trouble save a round of chemotherapy back in 2008.

When it comes to prevention and potential cures, the cancers that have affected me and my family are all tough nuts to crack.

Colorectal cancer isn't.

"Colorectal cancer starts as a polyp, which is a small collection of abnormal cells, in the colon or rectum," notes a news release put out last week by the Maine CDC. "Polyps tend to grow slowly and can take many years before they become cancerous."

Back when I had my first colonoscopy, in 2006, I was declared polyp-free. Still, my doctor advised me to come back in five to 10 years, and now here was Strang Burgess, out of the blue, rolling out the welcome mat.

Check that. The red carpet had already been extended to my friend Mike Violette of the "Morning News with Ken & Mike" on WGAN radio.

But Mike got scoped just a year or two ago and, because another trip up his colon wasn't medically necessary at this time, the good doctors told him to keep his pants on.

So there I sat, being offered the runner-up spot in the Greater Portland Celebrity Colonoscopy Sweepstakes.

"Hmmm . . . Kim Block's going to be there?" I asked Strang Burgess.

"She will," Strang Burgess replied. "And maybe some other people, too."

Try as I might to come up with a compelling reason to say no ("Tuesday? Oh shoot, I'm vacuuming out my car that day."), I couldn't. Anything that's bad for cancer is, by reflex, good by me.

"I'll do it," I told Strang Burgess.

Five minutes later, she shot me an email entitled "Colorectal Cancer Talking Points."

Colorectal cancer has "talking points?" Who knew?

Turns out they're actually worth talking about.

Colorectal cancer, also known as colon cancer, is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in Maine.

According to the 2012 Maine Annual Cancer Report, 758 Mainers were diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2009. The previous year, 270 Mainers died of the disease.

In 2010, 73.4 percent of Maine residents reported being up to date with colorectal screening -- meaning they'd received either a "fecal occult blood test" within the past year, a "flexible sigmoidoscopy" within five years, or an all-out colonoscopy within the past 10 years.

And most important: Colorectal cancer is "highly curable" if it's found and treated early.

So back to my colon.

Monday was "prep" day: no solid food, clear liquids only, a couple of laxatives here and there and a delectable mix of 238 grams of powdered Miralax and 64 fluid ounces of lemon-lime Gatorade.

"Look at the bright side," I told myself as I stirred my monster cocktail. "You've got two full hours to drink it."

And I had all night to get rid of it.

I awoke Tuesday morning with an empty feeling. Or as Cliff Schechtman, my ever-supportive executive editor, later put it, "Bill Nemitz: Unplugged."

By 10:30 a.m., staff photographer Gabe Souza and I were off to the gastro center on Congress Street.

By 11 a.m., I was surrounded by cameras and microphones: my trusty colleague Souza, Block and her WGME cameraman, "Catching Health" blogger Diane Atwood and Dave Pride, a photographer who works for Strang Burgess, all there to document the drama.

"What are you most nervous about?" Block asked gently.

"Where you're going to be standing," I replied tactfully.

Enter Dr. Morse, a genial fellow who explained that I would be administered "conscious sedation" throughout the procedure ("I'm a big fan," I replied) and that they would actually inflate my colon with air to get a better view (the Pillsbury Doughboy popped into my head).

"You're going to feel (the medication) go to your head pretty quickly," Morse advised. "That's normal."

I remember saying "OK."

Despite my mighty effort to maintain my journalistic integrity throughout the 22-minute procedure, the digital audio recorder I kept by my side has me in la-la land around two minutes and 30 seconds.

Meaning I missed the breaking news: Dr. Morse found a polyp!

Better yet, he snipped the apparent "precancerous" growth at its roots for shipment to a lab. They'll tell me in a week or so how much of a threat it is, was or could have been.

Which, I assume, was a good thing?

"You are the poster boy for colorectal cancer screening," Morse later told me. "Right there, what we did today. I don't know if that would have been a cancer, but it was possible. And now it can't be."

Tune into WGME-TV tonight at 5 and Kim Block will tell you about the parts I missed. And log onto pressherald.com around the same time for my prime-time adventure as seen through the talented eyes of Gabe Souza.

Me?

I'll be praying in advance for the countless Mainers who, unless they close their eyes and chug that Gatorade right now, someday will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

And I'll be thanking God I'm not one of them.

 

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

 

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