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My friend was in her mid-50s and, like me, she worked in health care. She was a busy mom and was very involved in church. My friend was diagnosed with colorectal cancer just five months before she died.
When I heard the news, I was shaken. Worse, I was ashamed. I was 48 at the time, and I was past due for my own colonoscopy screening. I’m an African-American woman working in health care, and I knew better. Every day, I work with gastroenterologists, the doctors who specialize in the digestive system and perform colonoscopies. We advise African-Americans to start regular colonoscopies beginning at age 45 because of our higher risk for colon polyps that can develop into colon cancer. But much like my friend, I put my responsibilities before my own health.
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Why Didn’t I Put Myself First?
Like many women, even though I know taking care of myself is important, I’ve had a drive my whole life to put others first, including my family and my patients. My work ethic reflects the same philosophy that underlies in everything we do here at MedStar Washington Hospital Center: Patients are always our first priority. As a practice administrator in a busy gastroenterology practice, I have demands and responsibilities to oversee and manage daily operations that are essential for patients’ care, and which can’t be disrupted. It was almost easy for me to get so caught up that I neglected myself in the process. I did schedule a colonoscopy a couple of times, but I ended up giving my appointment slots to patients who I felt needed them more.
My friend’s death from colorectal cancer made me realize how wrong I’d been to neglect my health. I have two boys that I adore, a 16-year-old and an 12-year-old, as well as a wonderful husband and a career I love. I knew it was time to take care of myself first in order to take care of my family and patients.
Preparing for My Colonoscopy
My fellow staff members helped me. They quickly found an available appointment—for the day after the Super Bowl. That meant I had to stick to a clear liquid diet the day before the test. I joked, “You really set me up! I can’t eat wings or chips or anything!”
I’ll be honest: I was reluctant to do the prep before my colonoscopy. I was concerned about being able to drink the required amount of the prep solution. But my colleagues and Dr. Z. Jennifer Lee, a doctor I work with and who screened me, gave helpful prep tips, such as to keep the fluid chilled and use a straw. The prep was easier than I expected, as was the procedure itself.
Related reading: Tips to make colonoscopy prep more bearable
My Test Results
Dr. Lee found that I did have a colon polyp, which she removed and sent to pathology for testing. Thankfully, it came back benign, or noncancerous. But mine was the type of polyp that can become cancerous if not removed, so I will have my next screening in five years. Some people will have repeat colonoscopies sooner and some can wait as long as 10 years between screenings. My experience shows the point of colonoscopies: Dr. Lee prevented potential cancer from happening. Since I got my colonoscopy, I feel so much better! It’s like a burden has been lifted from me. I know that I’m fine, and I just have to stay on top of my own health care. I’ve made a promise to myself that I’m going to get better about this. Every so often, I will evaluate where I am and make sure to make time for my own well-being.
I was initially hesitant to talk about this in a public sphere. Did I really want to admit I let my own colonoscopy go when I knew better and, at the same time, was counseling patients to schedule theirs? Ultimately, I decided I had to talk about it. By telling my story, I hope I can show others how important it is to get a colonoscopy, to know their risk for colorectal cancer and to take action before it’s too late. We all have friends and family members who depend on us. It’s time to take care of them by taking better care of ourselves first.