No matter what you've heard about how unpleasant colonoscopies are, Susan Brady hopes her story will convince you they're a whole lot better than the possible alternatives.
"Many people are afraid or embarrassed to get a colonoscopy," said Brady, 52, a product manager with a software company. "They buy into the hype about how terrible the prep is, how you have to drink this liquid that doesn't taste great, and how you have to stay near a toilet. But colonoscopies save lives and they are nothing — nothing — compared to cancer, the treatments and their potential side effects."
Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control. But the survival rate is improving, and experts credit screening, especially colonoscopy, which catches cancers early and even allows polyps to be found and removed before they become malignant.
Two years ago, Brady experienced periodic rectal bleeding over two months. At first, she thought it might be hemorrhoids.
But with a family history of colon cancer (an aunt and cousin both died of the disease) she decided to visit the doctor, who scheduled a colonoscopy. During the procedure, a thin, flexible lighted tube is inserted into the rectum and colon to check for polyps while the patient is sedated.
A 20-year study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine found colonoscopies cut the rate of deaths from colorectal cancers by 53 percent.
In Brady's case, a Stage II A rectal cancer was found. It had penetrated the muscle layer of the rectum but had not yet pierced the rectum wall.
"I was in shock," she said. "I worked out, ate right, felt good and had a colonoscopy just three years earlier." She believes her cancer was fast-growing, and that's why it wasn't seen on that first screening.
The National Cancer Institute (www.cancer.gov) predicts there will be more than 143,000 new cases of colorectal cancer this year and more than 51,000 deaths from the disease.
"It's so preventable," said Brady. "People need to educate themselves about the disease and its symptoms."
Brady's diagnosis was followed by a series of barium enemas and endoscopic ultrasounds of the rectum, as well as radiation and chemotherapy administered over a period of six weeks.
The chemo made her tired, she said, but the radiation was "literally a pain in the butt."
Five days a week, she'd lie on the table, stomach down, bladder full (to move organs apart), as doctors used radiation, targeted to destroy cancer cells.
Bad as it sounds, she said it was tolerable until about the fourth week, when she started experiencing incredible pain. Bowel movements felt like "shards of glass," she said.
"You get to the point where you don't want to eat anything because you don't want it coming out." She lost about 15 pounds during the radiation treatment.
After that came surgery to remove the remnants of the cancer. Next up was an ileostomy, a procedure that creates a surgical opening of the small intestine so waste can be collected in an external pouch, bypassing the colon and giving the rectal area time to recover from the surgery.
Brady lived with the pouch for the next six months. She sports a 3-inch scar from the procedure.
While dealing with the bag on her stomach, she also received a round of preventative chemotherapy with the drug Oxaliplatin. It targets stray cancer cells that may have spread to other parts of the body, but can have severe side effects.
In September, on a trip to Boston for a funeral, Brady woke up and couldn't feel her hands or her lower legs and feet. She was diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy, a side effect of the drug.
She had balance problems. Trouble walking. Shoes were too painful to wear.
She's trying to speed up her recovery with a regimen of yoga, massage, warm water workouts at Clearwater's Long Center, and occasional hyperbaric oxygen therapy treatments, where she receives concentrated levels of oxygen inside a sealed chamber.
The oxygen "provides a good environment for cells to regenerate," she said. "I always feel better afterwards."
The neuropathy is slowly subsiding; doctors say her prognosis is very good.
Brady said the love and support of her family, especially Michael, her husband of 22 years, helped her along the difficult journey.
"Nothing about the cancer is glamorous," she said. "Nothing about the treatment is easy. But it beats the heck out of dying."