Dr. Andy Shaver is a gastroenterologist. Ironically, it is the type of cancer he looks for as a doctor that could have taken his life as a patient.
"It's thought that it takes a polyp probably 10 years to grow larger and turn into cancer and at age 41, mine was already a large enough size it had to be removed surgically. So I probably would have been dead before I was 50," says Dr. Shaver.
Colon cancer usually begins with a polyp, or small growth, in the colon. The disease kills more than 56,000 people every year, but 90 percent of the time, it's preventable if you catch it early. "But to do that we're going to have to get over people's fear or reluctance to have the exam done," says Dr. Shaver.
Danny Owens goes in for an exam because he knows he needs a colonoscopy, the standard screening for colon cancer, and it won't be his first. Danny had polyps removed during a colonoscopy years ago and it's time for a follow up.
The day before the procedure you're on clear liquids the whole day. Then at 5pm that evening, you start your laxative. It's not the procedure, but the prep that people dread, cleaning out the colon so the doctor has a clear view. But Danny is about to see that this time around, the process is much improved. Instead of drinking a gallon of Go-Lightly, these days the laxative preferred is just three ounces of Fleet Phospho-soda, but not all at once. Half the night before and the other half in the morning.
The best thing about a colonoscopy is this long thin scope that allows doctors to see inside the entire colon and even remove any growth or even cancers during the exam. Colonoscopy is an outpatient procedure. Patients get a mild sedative that brings on a gentle sleep, which means they may open their eyes and talk to the doctor, but they probably won't remember any of it.
"Now we got more medicine. So if you get uncomfortable, let us know and we'll give you more as you need it," says Dr. Shaver to Danny before the procedure begins.
Dr. Shaver inserts the scope into the rectum, winding it through the tunnel of the lower intestines looking for polyps. "Little bitty polyp right there," says Dr. Shaver as he does his exam.
It's easy to snip off and seal with an electrical current so there's hardly any bleeding. Then he continues winding through the tunnel and in all, finds four polyps, but each is easily removed.
"We certainly didn't see any big polyps going in and that's encouraging and no evidence of cancer," says Dr. Shaver after the examination is complete.
Again this reminder from the American Cancer Society: By age 50, everyone should be screened for colon cancer earlier if you have a family history of the disease or if you have some rectal bleeding. A change in bowel habits, persistent fatigue or an unexplained chronic iron deficiency can also be indicators.
A couple of hours later, Danny is going home, minus four polyps that could have become life-threatening someday.
Meanwhile, Dr. Shaver credits this procedure with saving his own life and preserving his family. Now, if he could just convince others to make the same investment.
"In the past, it was disaster control. Wait for things to break and we fix the problem. Now, in preventive mode, the good news is diseases are easier to catch and cure. The hard part is you have to convince yourself to come in when you're feeling fine," says Dr. Shaver.