Prior to becoming a parish priest, I spent a number of years as a hospital chaplain. I frequently interacted with people being treated for some of the most critical medical conditions imaginable. When someone receives a critical diagnosis, it is not uncommon for all kinds of thoughts and feelings to swirl. If someone is diagnosed with lung cancer, for instance, it is very common for that person to feel guilt and shame about all the times they smoked a cigarette in their lifetime, or maybe even about all the times they stood next to someone who was smoking. When someone is diagnosed with a liver condition, it is not uncommon for that person to think about that one time 20 years ago when they had a few too many beers at a football game. Our brains like to have answers for things that otherwise seem senseless. When something goes wrong, humans have a tendency to try to assign a reason. If I have a headache, it must certainly be because of the cornflakes I had for breakfast. If I twist my ankle, it must be because I left my house precisely at 7:24 a.m. when I never leave after 7:20! My team lost a big game? It must be because I wore the wrong ball cap today.
Because I was immersed in the healthcare world, I am comfortable with topics that otherwise are probably not for discussion in mixed company. If you’ve ever worn a hospital gown, then you know that there isn’t much there in the way of modesty. Body functions and fluids are simply part of life. Even though our bodies all function basically the same way, there are topics that are simply seen as taboo for talking about in public. Sometimes, that is appropriate. At other times, it is important to challenge the stigma. Talking about important topics, even if they make us uncomfortable, can sometimes literally save lives.
November is a month when some men refrain from shaving their facial hair as a way of bringing awareness to some of these very important causes. When someone participates in “No-Shave November”, that person is often doing so as a means of reminding others about the importance of screenings for certain illness such as testicular cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer. All of these types of cancer are particularly treatable. However, if they are to be treated, they must be diagnosed early on. As your priest, I strongly encourage you to ignore the stigma and to make sure you have regular screenings for cancers and illnesses that can be present in your reproductive systems or in your colon.
It probably would fall on deaf ears if I encouraged you to go for screenings and was not willing to do so myself. This is why I am using this week’s Aloha Friday to tell you that within the last two years, I have had screenings from both my urologist and my gastroenterologist. As a way of helping to remove the stigma, I will even share some (but don’t worry, not too many) details about the procedures. Be aware that the following does contain some personal details about my healthcare. I am sharing them with you in an effort to help remove the stigma. These topics are not, nor should they be, taboo!
My recent colonoscopy was two years ago. Although I am young for a colonoscopy, I was showing some symptoms that worried my primary care physician. He suggested having the procedure because my symptoms were consistent with those of colon cancer. I was scared. No one wants to hear that their symptoms are consistent with those of cancer. Young, relatively healthy guys like me are probably the least likely people to seek medical care. Not coincidentally, men tend to live shorter lives than women and men are much more likely to have undiagnosed long-term illnesses.
I am fortunate my doctor encouraged me to go and I am fortunate I have a number of men in my life who could vouch for the effectiveness of the procedure. “It’s really nothing to worry about!” they told me. And they were right. If you have had a colonoscopy, then you are familiar with the “beverage” you’re asked to drink the night before and the morning of the procedure. It claims to taste like Gatorade, but those claims are… let’s call them less than accurate. After drinking the cocktail, you wait. But you don’t wait long. The next several hours are best spent with a good book or a newspaper within reach. You don’t want to be terribly far from the restroom.
After the cocktail wears off, you get to go to bed. In the morning, you wake up and go through it all over again. Someone must drive you to the procedure and verify they will pick you up after it is over. Once you check in, it doesn’t actually take too long. An IV will be administered, and you’ll be asked to lay on your side. The next thing you know, you’ve been drugged and you’re blissfully unaware that a doctor has a long camera in a place that you otherwise wouldn’t want to place a long camera. In my case, the result of the procedure was a clean bill of health. My symptoms were traced to an artificial sweetener I had been using in my coffee. But had I not had my colonoscopy, I would never have figured it out. I would still be suffering these symptoms. I would also likely continue to live in fear that I had some undiagnosed cancer in my colon.
The prostate exam was a little more invasive. I’ll spare you the details, but it was not terribly comfortable. The urologist was able to do the exam reasonably quickly and he diagnosed me with a prostate condition. It was not cancer, but it was a very treatable condition. It’s a condition suffered by many men, but I didn’t even know it existed. The urologist wrote me a prescription to treat my condition and my life improved for the better. Again, without sparing too many details, the treatment keeps me from having to make frequent trips to the restroom. In many ways, I feel like I have my life back.
If you’re due for a screening, please get it on the schedule. It’s really not taboo. See? I even wrote about it in a church newsletter! How taboo can it possibly be? I would much rather share stories with you about how we had similar experiences with our colonoscopy prep than to share stories about how one of us regrets not getting screened earlier. I have had conversations with so many people who waited too long to get their screenings. By the time they finally received their diagnoses, it was too late to treat their illnesses. At that point, their brains entered that time of regret and remorse. They found themselves playing the “what-if?” game. Don’t play the “what-if?” game. When your healthcare provider tells you to schedule screening procedures, please do it. Don’t succumb to feelings of fear or shame. Someone can hold your hand through it all. I’m happy to be the person to hold your hand. Our lives are too important. Don’t wait. Get screened today. It might just save your life.