Examining the real deal on virtual colonoscopy

December 04, 2003|By Kevin Cowherd

The recent headlines about virtual colonoscopy have lifted the spirits of many of us in the geezer and near-geezer communities, although no one is exactly popping champagne and throwing confetti just yet.

Personally, I had hoped for a bit more from the medical community on this issue.

In fact, I had hoped for headlines that blared: "Colonoscopy, schmolonoscopy: researchers call procedure `huge waste of time' " and "Public urged to adopt `que sera, sera' attitude toward colon-cancer screening."

But barring that, the news this week that a virtual colonoscopy was just as effective as a conventional one is promising to the vast demographic known as the AARP mailing list.

Of course, this news arrives just a tad too late for me, as I recently underwent a conventional colonoscopy, an event chronicled in this space in excruciating detail.

Thanks to the wonders of modern anesthesia, my colonoscopy was fairly uneventful.

Still, at no point right after the procedure did I turn to the doctors and nurses and say: "We gotta do this again real soon."

Then again, the virtual colonoscopy doesn't sound like a day on the Riviera, either.

For one thing, you still have to drink that horrible-tasting laxative the day before, which is like saying to your family: "If you need me, I'll be in the bathroom for the next 12 hours."

And while a virtual colonoscopy uses X-ray scans - eliminating sedation and the pleasant prospect of having a long metal tube with a TV camera snaked through your intestines - a short tube is inserted to pump in air so the colon can be viewed.

I don't know, maybe it's me. But I'm sort of squeamish about having any tubes inserted in me, long or short.

No wonder I'm not surprised that more than half the patients in one study who had both a virtual and conventional colonoscopy reported more discomfort with the virtual one.

Look, if you're my doctor and we're discussing any procedure involving the insertion of metal tubes - I don't care if it's the size of a thimble - the next thing I want to hear is: "Of course, you'll be heavily sedated."

Finally, there's this little problem with a virtual colonoscopy: If polyps are spotted, the patient has to return for a conventional colonoscopy to have them removed.


Anyway, until virtual colonoscopies become more widely available, most of us will continue to have the conventional kind, such as the one that - how's this for timing? - Bruce Elliott, the talk-show host on WBAL-AM radio, will undergo tomorrow.

Oh, I know, I know ... very few people have the honor of having their coming colonoscopy announced in a newspaper column.

(Hmmm, maybe this could become a regular Sun feature. We already announce engagements and weddings. Why not another few column inches devoted to "Colonoscopies 'Round Town"?)

Anyway, I heard about Elliott's colonoscopy from his wife, St. Joseph Medical Center PR wiz Vivienne Stearns-Elliott. I had called her to ask if she knew of anyone about to undergo the procedure, so I could get a reaction to this virtual-colonoscopy business.

"Not off the top of my head," she said. Then, a second or two later: "Well, Bruce is having one Friday."

"Don't tease me, Vivienne," I said.

"No, he is," she said. "I don't know if he wants to talk about it, though."

It turned out Elliot didn't want to talk about his colonoscopy the way Donald Trump doesn't want to talk about the new supermodel he's dating.

When I reached him at his home in Timonium, Elliott seemed remarkably calm for a man who would soon ingest the Chernobyl of all laxatives and then be probed the way no human being should be probed.

Forty-eight hours before my colonoscopy, I was curled in the fetal position on my couch whimpering: "Oh, God, this is it ... "

Not Elliott.

"OK, I'm not real excited about the process," he said. "But I'm not terrified of it ... [although] someone's playing with a part of my body that I don't like to have played with."

Elliott, who is 55, said he'd already put off having a colonoscopy for five years, despite the fact that his dad had had colon cancer.

Elliott said he'd read the stories about virtual colonoscopy, but he didn't seem too bummed out that he was about to be examined in the, um, un-virtual way.

"I'd rather have a regular exam," he said. "That way if they do spot something ... they get rid of it on the first go-round."

Plus, I said, it gives you something to talk about on the air Saturday morning.

Watch the ratings go through the roof, I said. People love talking about their colonoscopies.

That "Colonoscopies 'Round Town" column, that could be huge in this paper.

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